Suddenly it starts … you have an overwhelming sensation of impending doom; your legs feel like jelly; you begin to sweat profusely; it becomes more difficult to catch your breath; your heart is pounding like it will burst right out of your chest and you feel you are about to lose all control.
You are experiencing an anxiety attack.
These sensations are totally natural in response to real danger, such as somebody following you on a dark night as you walk home or being confronted with a large, snarling dog.
However, for many people this extreme stress response may happen several times a day when there is no immediate danger. If you are constantly asking yourself, ‘why do I have anxiety attacks?‘ and would like to know how to cope with them, you have come to the right place.
Anxiety Attacks? You are not alone …
If you have experienced anxiety attacks, don’t panic! … you are not alone. In the United States today, an anxiety disorder will affect a staggering 40 million adults according to the National Institute of Mental Health; that is around 18 % of the total adult population.
The Anxiety and Depression Society of America (ADAA) states that, for the majority of people (around 80 %), anxiety disorders are easily treated although around a third of sufferers do not seek, or get, the appropriate medical treatment.
A Few Statistics …
Women are almost twice as likely to suffer with a panic disorder as men.
However, the true figures are not known as men are less likely to seek help and tend to ‘suffer in silence’.
Anxiety disorder, can be linked with depression and the two diseases often co-exist together.
In fact, around 50% to 60% of those who suffer with anxiety attacks also have depression. Although anxiety and panic attacks can occur at any time, even in children, the average age of onset is around 25 years old.
Where do my Anxiety attacks come from?
General Anxiety Symptoms
Everybody suffers from feelings of anxiety at some point in their lives. As mentioned earlier, anxiety is a normal and natural response to stress. However, it is when levels of anxiety increase and intrude on the enjoyment of every day life that it can be said there is a recognisable problem.
We are all different and the signs and symptoms of our anxiety will differ too, from mild feelings to really quite extreme reactions such as the full anxiety attack. General emotional anxiety symptoms include:-
- Excessive ruminating or worrying that is not always in proportion to the problem at hand.
- A sense of doom or dread: This is often accompanied by ‘worst-case scenarios’ being played over and over in the head.
- Feeling tense and on edge and having difficulty concentrating.
- Feelings of irritability and restlessness.
- Feeling at risk or in danger in situations where there is no threat.
- Experiencing mental blanks – when asked a question your mind goes completely blank.
Panic Attack Symptoms
The symptoms of panic attacks are similar to generalised anxiety symptoms but tend to be more extreme and include both emotional and physical symptoms:-
- A feeling of overwhelming panic that can appear to come out of nowhere: The panic can also be accompanied by an acute fear of losing control.
- Shortness of breath and hyperventilating. Hyperventilation is where the breathing becomes rapid and shallow and oxygen levels in the blood increase. Taking a few breaths into a brown paper bag can increase carbon dioxide levels and ease the anxiety attack. Do not use the brown paper bag method if you have a history of heart disease or lung disorders.
- Fainting or feeling faint.
- Heart palpitations: You may experience a pounding heart and the heart rate may also become very rapid. This often increases the fear as it can be mistaken for a heart attack.
- Chest pain: Some sufferers of anxiety attacks may experience either a tightness in the chest or chest pain.
- Shaking, sweating and trembling.
- Stomach ache or cramps.
Treatment for Anxiety Attacks
If you are regularly suffering from anxiety attacks then the two main treatments that your physician will probably prescribe are:-
1) Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This is a particular type of psychotherapy that research studies have shown to be particularly effective in treating panic disorders.
When somebody begins to suffer with acute anxiety attacks it is the negative interpretation of the situation and associated thoughts, emotions and actions that cause the problem.
Cognitive behavioural therapy attempts to change the way we think (cognition) and the associated feelings (emotion) and once this has being understood, we can then change the way we act or respond (behaviour) to a given situation.
Traditional anti-anxiety medications are the benzodiazepines. Alprazolam and Clonazepam are the only two benzodiazepines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of panic attacks.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor’s (SSRI‘s) are a newer group of anti-anxiety drugs proven to be effective in the treatment of panic disorders.
Commonly used SSRI’s include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil) and fluvoxamine (Luvox). SSRI’s have been proven in studies to be effective in reducing the amount of panic attacks and anticipatory anxiety. These medications do come with some side effects so investigate carefully with your physician.
Self help ways for Overcoming Panic Attacks.
Exercise – Get up, get out and get moving
As well as getting your body into shape and improving physical fitness, exercise has been proven in many medical studies to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
With as little as five minutes aerobic exercise per day your mood starts to stabilize and overall anxiety levels begin to decrease.
However, some psychologists suggest three workouts a week for reducing both anxiety and depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America state that a ten minute walk may be equally as effective as a 40 minute gym session.
Basically don’t worry about what type of exercise is best, inactivity increases anxiety – you simply need to get out and get moving. According to one study those who engage in physical activity regularly:
… experience fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms, thus supporting the notion that exercise offers a protective effect against the development of mental disorders.
Not being able to relax, both mentally and physically, over a prolonged period of time can lead to chronic anxiety which can develop into anxiety attacks.
Most therapists will give you some breathing and relaxation techniques that will help in overcoming panic attacks whilst they are happening.
But to reduce the underlying anxiety associated with anxiety attacks, learning how to recognise when your body is relaxed is thought to be the key in the first steps to recovery.
Breathing exercises are an excellent way of alleviating the symptoms of anxiety attacks.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Food and Drinks to Avoid
There are several foods to avoid that studies have shown increase anxiety symptoms. Drinks containing caffeine act as stimulants and should be gradually reduced, if not stopped. These include tea, coffee, hot chocolate and coca cola.
Caffeine also affects the quality of sleep and that is not going to do your anxiety levels any good at all.
Likewise alcohol should be reduced to a moderate level or stopped altogether if possible as it acts as both a depressant and a diuretic (makes you pee more). If you are dehydrated this can affect mood and so drinking plenty of water is going to help.
Other foods to avoid as much as possible are those containing sugar, processed food and fatty foods. Research has linked a poor quality diet with anxiety.
Food to Eat More Of
Some vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause anxiety and depression, especially the B vitamins. Vitamin B Complex is known to support the nervous system, especially the adrenal glands, you could even follow an ‘Adrenal Fatigue Diet‘ to reduce your anxiety.
Choose foods rich in Vitamin B or invest in vitamin supplements.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been scientifically proven to benefit all areas of health, including mental health. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish. It is also known that a protein-rich diet may be beneficial in reducing anxiety.
Basically, an all round healthy diet that includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, proteins and fish will have a beneficial effect in decreasing anxiety and depression. Dr. Halls’ recommends two all round healthy-eating plans that have been scientifically proven to benefit all aspects of health; the Mediterranean diet and the Dash diet.
Both would be worth trying to reduce depression and anxiety attack symptoms.
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How Anxiety Affects Daily Life: A Personal Tale.
Anxiety attacks aren’t always obvious; they don’t always make your palms sweat, or your heart race, or make your breathing shallow.
This is because there are different types of anxiety. The most common anxiety disorder is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
Fear of the Unknown
Everyone gets anxious about things. However, people with generalised anxiety disorder are anxious all the time, often for no specific reason. The anxiety has a negative impact on the lives of those suffering with anxiety attacks.
Worrying all the time certainly takes a toll on those suffering with anxiety. For me, my constant anxiety stems from fear of the unknown. Not knowing what the future may bring and not having the ability to control the future causes me a lot of anxiety.
Sometimes it feels like I’m spending every minute of my life thinking about the future because part of me believes that if I’m not prepared for every possibility then I’m not going to be happy.
The ironic thing is the constant worrying makes me unhappy; many nights it takes me three to four hours to fall asleep, because I’m afraid I’ve forgotten something, or I’m worried my plans won’t work out the way I want them to.
I also suffer from Social Phobia or social anxiety. People often get nervous before making a speech. However, people suffering from social phobia find social situations painful and often try to avoid them.
Sufferers of social phobia are constantly afraid of being judged for the way they talk or even walk. For example, when I’m in line at a fast food joint I’m constantly rehearsing what I’m going to say to the cashier. Even if I know exactly what I want, I’m afraid of holding up the line, or dropping my money, or not being able to perfectly articulate what I want to order.
My friends often invite me to go to clubs, but I always turn them down, because I’m afraid everyone in the club is going to be watching and judging my awful dance moves.]
Fortunately, my social phobia has never gotten bad enough to manifest into agoraphobia. People with agoraphobia refuse to leave their homes at all. I’m also lucky that my anxiety hasn’t manifested into obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Treatment for Anxiety Attacks
Treatment for anxiety disorders depends on how severe the disorder is. Typically, anxiety disorders are treated with medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or a combination of the two.
Your doctor usually will recommend treatment for patients with anxiety disorders. However, patients do have a say in their treatment. For example, when I was first diagnosed with anxiety, my doctors pushed for medication, but I refused to take any. I was afraid that medication would make the world seem foggy.
Get some Therapy … Really!
I saw a therapist every other week for over a year. My therapist would draw diagrams, and explain the chemical imbalances in my brain that caused me to feel the way I did.
He had me spend a lot of time talking about specific situations that caused me to feel anxious, and encouraged me to really think about my underlying emotions.
Once I was able to recognize what truly made me anxious, he was able to teach me coping methods to properly deal with them. To this day, the methods I learned in therapy help me keep control and enjoy my life.
Anxiety and Relationships
Anxiety disorders also affect relationships. Before I got my anxiety under control, I spent a lot of time hiding in my room and experienced a lot of free-floating anxiety. This caused my friends to stop inviting me to go to places because they knew I would turn them down.
It caused my family to accuse me of being cold and stuck-up because I never wanted to be around them. Even though I had gotten my anxiety under control before I met my husband, falling in love was scary, because not everyone can deal with a mental condition on a daily basis.
Luckily my husband was willing to sit down with me and talk about a disorder, to try to understand how to help me when anxiety overwhelms me.
Anxiety can be a crippling disorder, and if you think you suffer from it, I recommend seeing a doctor or therapist, because it can make a big difference in the way you enjoy life.
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- Roy-Byrne PP, Craske MG, Stein MB. (2006) Panic disorder. Lancet. 2006 Sep 16;368(9540):1023-32. (Retrieved August 12th 2016) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16980119
- Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Jin R, Ruscio AM, Shear K, Walters EE. (2006) The epidemiology of panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006 Apr;63(4):415-24. (Retrieved August 12th 2016) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16585471