Anxiety Attack: Definition, Symptoms & Techniques for Stress-Relief
Anxiety is something familiar to all of us – we feel anxious before an important meeting, an exam, a job interview. But what feeling is it in reality? Anxiety is our body’s response to a challenge. The heart is pumping more blood, providing your body with oxygen, – and we are ready for action. We become alert and more effective at solving physical and emotional problems. Anxiety is a natural feeling when our safety, health or happiness is threatened. However, sometimes the feeling of anxiety can become overwhelming and devastating and appear out of nowhere. Acute or prolonged anxiety attacks often occur in patients suffering from anxiety disorders.
From being worried – to an anxiety attack
The feeling of unease is an adequate reaction to stress, and it can be very useful in some situations. Anxiety is a warning: it helps us to prepare for a possible danger and concentrate on a proper response to it.
We also often feel worried about future intimidating events, such anxiety manifests itself in the form of muscle tension and avoidant behavior. Fear is an emotional reaction to a direct threat.
An anxiety attack is different from the completely rational feelings of nervousness and agitation. It’s characterized by the overwhelming, oftentimes irrational sense of fear and the following symptoms:
- Excessive restlessness;
- Inability to relax;
- Sleep disorders;
- Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), or slow pulse;
- Pain or tension in the chest;
- The feeling of a lump in the throat;
- Dry mouth;
- The shortness of breath, panting;
- Fear, stupor, inability to control your own actions;
- Tremor, sweating, fever;
- The feeling of detachment;
- Lightheadedness, dizziness;
- Thoughts of death.
During a stressful situation, everyone can experience the described symptoms. But the person suffering from an anxiety disorder is able to go through such an attack in a calm environment, without any reason, and the symptoms usually are much more severe.
Which anxiety disorders can lead to an attack?
There are a few most common anxiety disorders. Quite frequently one person is affected by a number of them at once. For example, a patient with panic disorder will probably experience the symptoms of social anxiety disorder and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder
“Generalized” or common anxiety disorder is a mental condition where people constantly feel worried, and this feeling is interfering with their normal daily activities. Restlessness and tension can be accompanied by such physical symptoms, as:
- Concentration difficulties;
- Muscle tension;
- Sleeping disorders.
Generalized anxiety disorder often makes people fixate on mundane things, such as housework or health of the family members, or on minor problems, for example, car repair.
Unlike phobias, when fear is related to the specific object or situation, generalized anxiety disorder is a general feeling of fear and anxiety which plagues the everyday life of the affected person and makes it impossible for them to relax.
The main symptom of this disorder – recurrent panic or anxiety attacks, an overwhelming combination of physical and psychological distress. The intensity of the attack can be so high that there have been even cases of death. Besides panic attacks, the patient can suffer from other mental health issues, for instance, PTSD or depression.
People with phobias understand the irrationality of their fears, but the direct contact with a trigger (or sometimes even thinking about it) induces an anxiety attack. Phobias usually mean that the affected person has an acute reaction to a certain object, process or situation.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD has an influence on those who went through a horrible and traumatizing event in the past. It can be physical or sexual violence, a car crash, war or natural calamity. Patients with PTSD can also suffer from depression, hallucinations, nightmares or insomnia, irritability or the feeling of detachment. The symptoms are usually caused by anything reminding the affected person of their trauma (a “trigger”). There is more, within 3 months since the traumatic event the person is suffering from panic or anxiety attacks. Severe trauma can prolong this period considerably.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD is associated with the uncontrolled anxious thoughts or behavior. This disorder causes people to experience unwanted obsessive thoughts or ideas or perform certain rituals. For example, people obsessed with the fear of germs feel the need to constantly wash their hands. A person with such a disorder doesn’t like it but thinks that it’s the only way to fight anxiety attacks.
Social anxiety disorder
It’s a feeling of fear, panic, and anxiety in social situations. A person suffering from this mental disorder is afraid of making a fool of themselves in public, of feeling embarrassed. People with social anxiety disorder will try to avoid any social events. The typical examples of this disorder are the fear of public speaking, meeting new people, and eating in a public place. This mental health issue causes problems in the person’s everyday life.
The types of anxiety attacks
A patient diagnosed with any of the aforementioned disorders can have an anxiety attack. There are 3 kinds of anxiety attacks:
- Spontaneous. Such an attack usually occurs when a person has panic disorder. The symptoms appear all of a sudden, at any time, without apparent connection to what the person is currently doing. No certain places or situations have an influence on the occurrence of a spontaneous anxiety attack. Quite frequently it happens in the middle of the night.
- Specific. Such an anxiety attack is induced by the specific actions or situation which the affected person finds scary. For example, a social event triggers an anxiety attack in people with social anxiety disorder, discussing the traumatic events – in people with PTSD.
- Situational. Sometimes people suffering from panic disorder are prone to anxiety attacks in a specific situation, though they are not afraid of the place itself. For instance, someone can experience an anxiety attack in a shopping center. One time the attacks become frequent, other time they stop. Such people tend to experience anxiety attacks while shopping, but the fits are not a reaction to the fear of shopping. Generalized anxiety disorder is often accompanied by situational anxiety attacks.
How to fight an anxiety attack?
The treatment for anxiety attacks includes a large number of techniques helping to cope with a sudden fit or prevent its development. Self-help methods are usually not enough to entirely avoid anxiety attacks. Only a qualified therapist can help with a severe pathology because a “mind-healer” is armed with the whole lot of effective rehabilitation means: Ericksonian hypnosis, EMDR-therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
But what if an anxiety attack has suddenly happened? The first thing you should do in this case is trying to calm down and stop fussing. Medications are not likely to help because their effect usually begins not earlier than after 15-30 minutes. By this time the fit of anxiety will have already ceased. Of course, the ritual of taking the pills can reduce the anxiety, but such dependence from meds can hardly be called healthy.
The means of coping with an anxiety attack without medications is more preferable. This includes a variety of psychotherapeutic maneuvers, such as breathing techniques, relaxation exercises, the methods of monitoring and analyzing the attack, an artificially induced anxiety attack, etc. There also exist a number of preventive measures against anxiety attacks: daily routine normalization, sports, long walks, abandoning bad habits. They’ll contribute to the development of a stronger body which carries a stronger spirit.
The methods of dealing with an anxiety attack
When an anxiety attack overwhelms you or you experience intense unreasonable fear, it’s necessary to divert attention, switching it to some object of the outside world. A phone call to a friend, watching a funny movie, reading a magazine or recalling a happy memory can prevent an anxiety attack or reduce its severity.
You need to find an “anchor” which can become your footing during a nervous fit. It can be counting, singing, planning what you are going to do tomorrow, solving crossword puzzles. The main thing is to get out of your shell and resist your psychosomatic disorder. You are in command of your body. Only you give orders and manage the course.
You are able to stop an anxiety attack with the help of focus breathing. Inhale through the nose, feeling the cold air entering your nostrils. Imagine that your windpipe is a transparent tube reaching your stomach. The air goes through it, expanding your stomach in the process. Then slowly exhale and feel how water from the air condenses on your transparent tube. During the exhale through a relaxed mouth the air is slowly evaporating. Breathe in and out, again and again, reaching a completely relaxed state.
During an anxiety attack, your breathing is quickened because of the rush of adrenaline. All the breathing techniques are based on making this process slow and deep. If possible, you should do breathing exercises not only when you have an attack. Take some time every day to slowly inhale and exhale for 3-5 minutes.
The “paper bag” method
An anxiety attack can cease if you breathe into a paper bag. Inhale and exhale into the bag until you feel calm. This method is based on the oxygen reduction and increasing the level of carbon dioxide – due to that the gases balance is restored. If you don’t have a paper bag, you can use your own hands – cup your hands together and begin to breathe deeply in and out.
Meditation and autogenic training
Meditation is a psychotherapeutic pill for any neurosis. There are a large number of meditation techniques and autogenic training exercises. Concentration on some abstract image in a state of deep relaxation helps to strengthen the nervous system, relieve the tension, reach the state of serenity. An actual meditation is not chakras or astral, it’s a professional relaxation practice with a strong antidepressant effect.
Observe your anxiety attack “from the outside”. Write down every symptom and every fear as if you’re doing a research, meticulously putting down every detail. The result of such behavior is the devaluation of fears, bringing their true nature to the surface.
Visualize mental images
Try to imagine what your fears and anxiety look like. Don’t make your brain imagine something in particular, trust your imagination or subconscious to do it. Then “destroy” the image any way you like – burn it down, wash it away in the ocean, turn the image of fear into a cloud and vanish it. You should also make an image of the state of serenity you enter after destroying your anxiety. What does your calmness look like? Contemplate the mental image of serenity while you are relishing the moment.
Detect the source of anxiety and make a mental image of it. Turn your fear into a stream of energy which is taking a form of a spiral. Determine the course of energy: clockwise or counterclockwise? Change the course, make the spiral swirl into the opposite direction, and watch the new stream of energy until you feel comfortable. If the new direction doesn’t make you calm down, change it again.
“The four elements”
Concentrating on the four elements helps not only get rid of the fear but also overcome the state of dissociation.
The “earth” element is responsible for the sense of safety. Sit down; concentrate on the feeling of your feet touching the ground. Look around. Find 3 different objects. Answer: what is around you right now, what are you hearing?
“Air” is responsible for focus breathing. Do any breathing exercise. You can just breathe deeply in and out.
“Water” is responsible for calmness and relaxation. Anxiety attacks usually make your mouth dry. Imagine how your salivary glands produce a plenty of saliva (think of the taste of lemon). If possible, drink a little water.
“Fire” is your imagination, lighting the way to a source of positive energy. Think about a bright, happy day.
Combining “the four elements” helps you focus on the present, relax, and find your way to a safe place.
“A golden string”
Stand up, feel how a stream of energy falls down from the sky, taking a shape of a golden string, and goes through the top of your head, your throat, your stomach, legs, and feet, and then takes its course toward the center of the earth. Then the energy returns, going through your feet, legs, stomach, heart, and head. Imagine how the energy goes up and down through your body a few times, connecting the sky and the earth with the help of you.
This technique is used for relieving the aftermath of the anxiety attack. You’ll need to cross your arms: left hand on your right shoulder, right hand – on the left. Start light tapping. Stop immediately if you feel anxious again.
Try to detect the localization of the fear and anxiety in your body. Determine its size, color, shape, and texture. After the exploration, you need to direct a healing light beam towards this place. Imagine how the light dissolves the anxiety and fear, makes them vanish for good.
This method is effective when it’s hard for the person to come back to a neutral state. You need to “put” your anxiety (fear, unpleasant memory) into an imagined container or paint can. At first, your negative feeling is resting on the surface – stir the paint until it melts down completely.
Putting off the fear
You can prevent an anxiety attack using the method invented by R.Wilson. This technique is teaching us to control our fear and manage it. It’s based on the acceptance of the fear, but delaying it: when you feel you are close to an anxiety attack, you need to make an arrangement with yourself that you’ll feel anxious in X hours, not now. When the arranged time comes, negotiate with yourself again: “I’ll become afraid in another X hours”. The intensity of anxiety and fear becomes less and less when you’re gradually putting them off. Due to this method, you’ll understand that it’s in your power to put anxiety attacks under control.
“Anxiety every day” (R.Wilson)
Another means of R.Wilson is a fixation of consciousness on the fear and anxiety. Try to cause yourself fear for about 10 minutes twice a day. The experiment should be at least 10 days long. Put off all your plans and voluntarily slip into a state of intense anxiety during a session, feeling as much discomfort as possible. Think only about your fear. After 10 minutes come back to a neutral state with the help of breathing exercises and return to your normal daily activities. This method helps to understand that an anxiety attack lasts for a limited period of time. The intensity of the attack becomes less, the fear decreases, and your attitude to the problem is changing with the course of time.
You can prevent an anxiety attack or overcome it at the stage of the beginning with the help of any of the abovementioned exercises. Choose your “favorite” method and use it during stressful situations. You can combine the techniques – your body will tell you which way of relaxation and stress-relief is the best.
It’s necessary to understand that any anxiety attack is not a sign of madness or coming death, but a primitive reaction of your body. This tight knot of nerves has a rational explanation. Watch how your body reacts to the rush of adrenaline as a spectator. Remind yourself that the “show” will eventually come to an end, that the anxiety attack is not likely to last more than 5-10 minutes if only you don’t add more “nerves” to it.
Of course, not every psychological trauma leads to anxiety attacks. But people with fragile mind belong to a risk group. Don’t rely on medications: treating a mental health issue with only tranquilizers or antidepressants will make the situation worse. To treat the symptoms doesn’t mean to cure the disease. Medications give results, but the effect is temporary.
All the aforementioned exercises are also a temporary measure. Moreover, they become less effective after some time. It’s impossible to convince yourself every time that you are calm and your life is peachy when the root problem is still unsolved. In a sense, there is no difference between therapeutic exercises and medications.
We don’t recommend using “amateur psychotherapy” without seeking professional help. Any of the methods can make the situation worse instead of improving it. Unfortunately, self-treatment is quite popular nowadays. But when we are discussing such a complex question as human psyche, it’s obvious that it’s a mistake to take any measures without consulting an expert.
Anxiety attacks can be dealt with for good. A course of professional treatment includes an average of 10-15 sessions and in the majority of cases is successful. Don’t wait – get help and live your life to the full, surrounded by success, pleasures, and friends.
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By Maria Shevtsova
Born in Belarus, 1985, a pedagogue and family psychologist. Taking action in support groups organization and social adaptation of the people with mental disorders. Since 2015 is a chief editor of the undepress.net project, selecting the best and up-to-date material for those, who want to get their life back or help someone dear, who got into mental trap.
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