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What is an anxiety attack? Tips and tricks for overcoming anxious moments

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Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million adults in America. Of that 40 million, only 36.9% receive treatment for their anxiety.

What is an anxiety attack?

First, it’s important to note that fear and anxiety are natural, healthy responses to being in dangerous situations. Physical and mental reactions to threats, like the fight-or-flight instincts that we often talk about, were life-saving for our ancestors and are often still life-saving when people are at risk. Feeling fear or anxiety when it is situationally appropriate is not what we’re talking about when we discuss anxiety attacks. 

An anxiety attack, often referred to as a panic attack, is defined as a sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety and physical symptoms, based on a perceived threat rather than actual imminent danger. So you feel the intense panic of being in terrible danger, despite it not being the case. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says, “These attacks are characterized by a sudden wave of fear or discomfort or a sense of losing control even when there is no clear danger or trigger.” If a person has anxiety attacks frequently, they may be diagnosed with a panic disorder, which is a kind of anxiety disorder.

Symptoms/signs of an anxiety attack are: 

  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Feeling of unreality or detachment

Managing an anxiety attack

Anxiety can hit you out of nowhere in a variety of situations. Sometimes you may have an idea of what brings on your anxiety but at times you may have no idea what the trigger was. Here are five tips and tricks for overcoming anxious moments next time you feel an attack coming on:

  • Walk away: If you recognize what triggers your anxiety and find yourself in a situation with that trigger, take yourself out of it. Simply removing yourself from the situation causing anxiety can help the anxiety pass without any further intervention.
  • Use grounding techniques: Grounding techniques can allow you to direct your focus away from what is causing you anxiety, even if you’re not sure what that trigger is. To ground yourself, pause and identify: 
    • 5 things you can see
    • 4 things you can touch
    • 3 things you can hear
    • 2 things you can smell
    • 1 thing you can taste
  • Mindful breathing: When you panic, your breathing becomes fast and shallow. Focusing on and controlling your breathing can interrupt this response, and may help your brain pull back from its anxiety spiral. Take deep, steady breaths until you can feel your body relaxing and your anxiety dissipating. Try box breathing: breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four, and holding for a count of four. 
  • Visualize a place where you feel safe: Combining this strategy with mindful breathing makes it more effective. While focusing on your breathing, allow yourself to think of a space or place in which you feel safe. Picture it in your mind. Maybe describe it to yourself, focusing on what it feels like to be there, including all of your senses. This visualization can help you take yourself out of the physical moment and will hopefully calm your anxious thoughts. 
  • Call a family member or friend: If you are by yourself when you experience an anxiety attack, try reaching out to your support system. Expressing your feelings and just having someone lend an open ear can help to shift your focus to something positive. 

If you have anxiety or panic attacks frequently, or if they are affecting your quality of life, it may be time to seek treatment. Help is available, and can make a real difference in how you feel.

Courtney Todd is the digital marketing coordinator at Workit Health. She has a  passion for raising awareness in the addiction treatment, recovery, and public health space.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. Workit Health, Inc. and its affiliated professional entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.

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