Anxiety is a normal emotional state that we feel due to our bodies inbuilt flight or fight response. When there is a threat, whether it be real or imagined, we are programmed to feel anxiety to alert us to danger. This is super helpful when there is a real threat! But, not so helpful when it is an imagined threat. Some people may be genetically predisposed to being more anxious and sensitive types of people, for others stressful life circumstances can create feelings of anxiety. If anxiety becomes a common response to everyday life it can become overwhelming and may possibly lead to longer term mental health concerns.
Generalised anxiety usually increases when we are feeling worried about a range of events or when there is an upcoming situation that might make us feel stressed. People who are prone to regularly experiencing generalised anxiety often describe themselves as being “worriers” or “over-thinkers” and they report having difficulty controlling their worry. These anxious feelings can be present as one goes about ones daily routine, but they don’t necessarily stop us in our tracks. Generalised anxiety can involve physical symptoms such as dryness in the mouth, rapid heart beat and trembling. Anxiety may also manifest in the form of irritability.
When anxiety becomes overwhelming it can lead to panic. Physical symptoms of panic attacks can include;
- intense fear or discomfort
- shortness of breath
- tightness in the chest
- tingling sensation in the hands or arms
- a feeling of gasping for air
- nausea or abdominal distress
- blurry vision
People who experience panic attacks often interpret these physical sensations as an indicator that something catastrophic is happening- like a heart attack, they fear they may suffocate, lose control or faint. For some people panic attacks can interfere with their life if they start avoiding situations they believe might lead them to feel panicked. This may include avoiding driving over bridges, avoiding catching public transport, avoiding public places or avoiding public speaking.
Understanding the Facts about Panic Attacks
FACT 1: Panic attacks are the body’s “fight-flight-freeze” response kicking into full gear. This response gets our body ready to defend itself (for instance, our heart beats faster to pump blood to our muscles so we have the energy to run away or fight off danger). However, sometimes our body reacts when there is no real danger. The alarm system goes off; but it’s really a false alarm.
FACT 2: Panic attacks are harmless, although they can feel very uncomfortable or scary. Because panic attacks are the body’s “alarm system,” they are designed to help you, not harm you. You might feel like you are dying or going crazy, but you are not. You would have the same feelings in your body if you were facing a real physical threat (for example, if you were in front of a bear).
FACT 3: Panic attacks are brief (typically lasting only 5 to 10 minutes at peak intensity), although they sometimes feel like they go on forever. Because panic attacks take up a lot of energy in the body, they quickly run out of gas. This is why they don’t last very long. In fact, you might find yourself feeling exhausted afterward.
The good news is there are things that we can do to manage panic attacks
1. Deep breathing helps trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is an antidote to anxiety. Practicing deep breathing regularly and also when panic arises can help the body to calm. Whilst it may not always stop a panic attack altogether, it may reduce the intensity and duration of the attack.
2. Allowing yourself to notice the panic and not avoid panic attacks is known as panic surfing. Riding the wave of panic is a helpful analogy- there will be a peak and then it passes.
3. Evidence shows that allowing your body to experience these sensations, rather than constantly avoiding them, helps us to understand that they will pass and helps to teach the body that catastrophe doesn’t eventuate from panic. This often then leads to a decrease in the panic symptoms themselves.
4. Having a few coping statements that you say to yourself when panic arises can help reduce any catastrophising that occurs in panic attacks. For example “it’s a hassle not a horror” or “it won’t last forever” or “I can manage this, I am ok”
5. Managing your anxiety and panic can be hard work, give yourself some credit and pat yourself on the back when you manage to cope with one of your feared situations.
6. If panic is disrupting your life, getting professional help from a psychologist is a good idea. Treatments like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) are very effective in helping to manage anxiety and panic. Other therapies that are effective for panic attacks include Eye Movement Desensitisation Therapy (EMDR). Stay tuned to future blogs about EMDR!