Shaking, nausea, sweating, a pounding or racing heart, and a tight chest: If these symptoms sound familiar then you’ve probably had an anxiety attack at some point. In the midst of such an intense bout of terror, some people can mistake what they’re experiencing for a heart attack - after all, many of the symptoms are the same - thereby, further exacerbating their symptoms.
Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, and in small amounts, it can actually be good for us when anxiety is justified. But when your feelings of anxiety become strong and severe enough to induce an anxiety attack, it’s safe to say that you need to do something about it.
An attack may crop up without explanation as you’re going about your day or, in other cases, a specific stressful circumstance or event could set one-off. With frequent anxiety attacks, you may end up living in a constant state of fear, and avoiding certain situations to prevent triggering another attack. Either way, sufferers will vouch just how frightening and distressing an anxiety attack can be.
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Because many of the symptoms associated with an anxiety attack are invisible, it’s all too easy for bystanders to diminish or dismiss your suffering, especially if they don’t know what it feels like. Even medical science is yet to officially diagnose the condition, making its signs and symptoms open to interpretation and all the more difficult to pinpoint.
So, if you’ve come online searching for some much-needed answers and advice about your anxiety attacks then look no further. Here you will discover all that you need to validate your feelings of trepidation, including common symptoms, possible causes, and helpful tips on how to manage your anxiety.
How do I know I’m having an anxiety attack?
An anxiety attack can appear as if out of nowhere and feelings of extreme fear and panic can develop fairly quickly. Other times, certain phobias, health conditions, or lifestyle factors may be the root cause or potential triggers for an attack.
Although typically, an episode peaks within 10 minutes and very rarely exceeds a half-hour, this relatively short period can feel like an eternity for an individual who is overwhelmed by the feeling of terror and loss of control.
These are the most obvious mental and physical signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack:
- Shortness of breath or a choking sensation
- Heart palpitations and chest pain
- Shaking or trembling
- Knots in the stomach
- Numbness or pins and needles
- Feeling dizzy and/or faint
- Hot and cold flashes
- Feeling detached from yourself or unreal
- Feeling like you’ve lost control
- Irrational thoughts accompanied by intense panic and dread to the point where you think you’re going to die
Rest-assured, an anxiety attack isn’t in any way dangerous or life-threatening to an otherwise healthy individual. However, when you’re in the middle of one, it can definitely feel like it is. If you’re prone to such attacks, you’ll be glad to know that the condition is highly treatable; it all starts with speaking to your doctor.
He or she will ask you to describe your symptoms, how often you get them, and how long they typically last in order to determine the best course of therapy for you. There are a variety of effective treatment options available to alleviate your symptoms and reduce the frequency and severity of your anxiety attacks.
What can trigger an anxiety attack?
Although there is a wide range of causes for an anxiety attack, the root cause is stress and feeling overwhelmed. Whatever the issue, people who suffer from anxiety attacks can vouch for how burdensome and disruptive they can be on a daily basis. They may struggle to sleep at night, side-step situations that may trigger an episode, or even avoid going out altogether for fear and embarrassment of having an attack in public.
Here are the most common factors that can trigger an anxiety attack:
- Work, financial, or family troubles
- Relationship problems
- Stressful life changes, i.e. divorce, death, moving, becoming a parent, etc.
- Being diagnosed with a chronic health condition
- Reduced mobility or physical function and loss of independence
- Phobias, i.e. spiders, heights, small spaces, public places, etc.
- Certain medications
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Disorders such as PTSD or OCD
- Genetic predisposition to stress and anxiety
- Changes in brain chemistry
What can I do during an anxiety attack to help control it?
As much as you may feel like you’ve lost all control during a dreadful anxiety attack, there are several steps you can take to regain a sense of control and help you cope better:
- Focus on your breathing: Taking, slow, deep, and gentle breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth can help your body to relax by letting go of the physical and mental stress accompanied by an anxiety attack.
- Practice mindfulness: As you are going through the episode, rather than reacting to your feelings and emotions, it can help to simply observe them objectively by reminding yourself that the experience is temporary and harmless; once the symptoms pass you will be just fine.
- Try grounding: This technique involves identifying objects in your surroundings and using them to be present at the moment. This can help ease your anxiety calm your anxiety by helping the brain recognize where you are and give you a better sense of control over the situation.
- Use relaxation techniques: Methods like guided imagery and muscle relaxation can help your body enter a relaxed state. Try closing your eyes and imagining the sights and sounds of a place you find comfortable; also, try tensing your muscle groups one at a time before releasing the tension, all the while paying attention to each muscle as you tense and relax it.
- Face your fears: Confronting the attack head-on is probably the best way to manage the symptoms. If you try to fight it, it will only be a losing battle; instead, by surrendering to the feelings and allowing them to pass on their own, you are desensitizing yourself to the symptoms and thereby training your body to not react as severely.
How can I manage my anxiety to prevent further attacks?
There’s definitely life after an anxiety attack, and incorporating healthier and stress-reducing habits into your daily routine can go a long way in managing the frequency and severity of anxiety attacks.
Here are some helpful tips:
- Connect with others: Speaking with other people about your anxiety can ease your stress by allowing you to process your thoughts and emotions. So whether it’s joining a support group, or sharing your concerns with a close and trusted friend or family member, talking about your troubles can make them seem less overwhelming.
- Get more sleep: Not getting enough shut-eye can have you making mountains out of molehills, as you’re not giving your body enough time to relax and recuperate from the stress of an average day. Try and get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night.
- Exercise more: Exercising releases mood-boosting and relaxing hormones, and is a great way to release pent-up tension and diminish feelings of fear and apprehension.
- Manage your stress and stop chronic worrying: Learn to stop stressful and worrisome thoughts in their tracks; this may be easier said than done, but with a bit of patience and practice you can effectively break this debilitating mental habit. Be mindful of when an anxious thought crops in your mind, then learn to challenge it and change it.
- Eat a healthy diet: A demanding and fast-paced lifestyle can, all too often, cause us to neglect our diets. Make an effort to eat healthy, wholesome meals consisting of plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, while cutting back on sugary and processed foods.
- Limit your alcohol, drug, and caffeine intake: Drugs and alcohol can contribute to anxiety attacks, which can swiftly develop into a vicious circle; coffee is another culprit that should be consumed in moderation – all of these substances change levels of a neurotransmitter known as serotonin, which helps to regulate mood and social behaviour.
- Practice relaxation techniques: Whether its mediation, yoga, listening to music, or indulging in a hobby, anything that helps you relax is a great way to boost your emotional well-being and keep your anxiety attacks at bay.
- Seek professional help: If all else fails, getting professional help is your best bet. Your doctor can offer you a range of treatment options that are suited to your individual needs, ranging from psychotherapy to anti-anxiety drugs.
Anxiety attacks can have a debilitating effect. Not all symptoms are obvious, but they can be quite intense and leave you feeling helpless. Making changes to your lifestyle and daily habits, and getting medical therapy when needed, can help alleviate your anxiety.
- Engel, N. 2017, How to Know When You are Having a Panic Attack, ADAA, viewed 31st August 2020, https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-know-when-you-are-having-panic-attack
- Mind 2017, Anxiety and Panic Attacks, viewed 31st August 2020, https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/panic-attacks/
- NHS 2020, Panic Disorder, viewed 31st August 2020, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/panic-disorder/
- Smith, M., et al 2019, Anxiety Disorders and Anxiety Attacks, Help Guide, viewed 31st August 2020, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/anxiety-disorders-and-anxiety-attacks.htm#:~:text=Symptoms%20of%20an%20anxiety%20attack%20include%3A&text=Feeling%20of%20losing%20control%20or,Trouble%20breathing%20or%20choking%20sensation