Anxiety and panic affect around 1 in 4 people at any one time. You are not alone! We can experience anxiety because of an ongoing stressful situation, we might be questioning our purpose and future goals. Many have had bad experiences that tell us the world is a dangerous place and bad things can happen at any time.
Anxiety is the body’s way of responding to being in danger and panic attacks are the most severe form of this. Adrenaline is rushed into our bloodstream to enable us to run away or fight (Fight or Flight). Our brains can’t distinguish between real physical danger and danger generated by our minds (‘What if I collapse?’) or emotional danger (e.g. being embarrassed or shamed). Anxiety is the body’s warning system and it works really well to get us away from danger, it makes us react. But what if the danger is all in our minds?
Anxious people tend to predict danger and threat and are therefore always looking out for it, they become hyper-vigilant. This means the survival system is always ready to go and can often mean they see danger where there is none. We start looking out for any sign of the feared scenario and become anxious at any sign of it.
For example, someone might fear they are going to have a heart attack so monitor (consciously and unconsciously) for any signs of changes in the heartbeat. Changes to heart rate happen all the time but scanning for these means you will notice them; because they are feared, they are catastrophized as a sign of an impending heart attack. Anxiety and panic will be triggered.
A person who fears being judged or criticised will scan for a tone of voice and facial expressions that might indicate such judgment. The voices and faces of others can change for many reasons but the fear leads us to believe this is about us and anxiety ensues.
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH MY BODY?
The signs and symptoms of anxiety are all part of the fight or flight system. However, they can often be misunderstood as signs of health problems or impending doom. Below are the typical symptoms of anxiety and why we experience them.
Heart racing – This helps to take the blood to where it is most needed. For example, the legs, so that we can run faster (flight); the arms so that we can hit out (fight); the lungs to increase our stamina. At the same time blood is taken from the places it is not needed for example fingers, toes, and skin. These changes cause tingling coldness and numbness.
Breathing gets faster – This helps the bloodstream to carry oxygen to the arms, legs, and lungs. This will give us more power. The side effects may include chest pain, breathlessness, and a choking feeling. As there is a slight drop in the blood and oxygen sent to the brain, we may feel dizzy, light headed, or have blurred vision.
Muscles tense and prepare – The large skeletal muscles tense and create power, this may cause pain, aching and shaking.
Sweating – Sweating helps to cool the muscles and the body. It helps to stop them from overheating. Sweating can also make us more slippery to our enemies!
Pupils dilate – This lets more light into our eyes so our overall vision improves. Side effects may include sensitivity to light or spots before the eyes.
Digestive system slows down – These are not important while in danger. This way, the extra energy will be sent to where it is most needed. Side effects may include nausea, butterflies and a dry mouth.
More alert – We will be concentrating on looking for danger, much less able to concentrate on anything else.
WHAT CAN I DO IN CASE OF A PANIC ATTACK?
Relaxation is key! Try to do things that help you relax and distract you from your worries. Breathing exercises, a massage, reading a good book, mindfulness and meditation can all be useful. Find what works for you.
During an anxiety attack adrenaline is released into our system. It takes up to 3 days for our body to “burn off” this adrenaline naturally leaving us in a heightened state of arousal. Doing exercise in any form can help to ‘burn it off’ much more quickly.
Medication might help address the physical symptoms of anxiety and stop the system kicking in but it will not help you to deal with stressful situations in the future. For that, you need to change your way of looking at the world.
Many people believe that experiencing anxiety means there is something wrong with them physically or mentally. This belief makes anxiety worse. Try to see your anxiety as a normal response and come to understand that what is happening is not dangerous.
What if I die or faint? Unless you are already physically unwell e.g. have an existing heart condition, you are extremely unlikely to die from a panic attack. As for fainting, during panic and anxiety attacks your blood pressure goes up, we faint when blood pressure drops.
WHAT IF I CAN NOT HELP IT?
Try challenging your beliefs that there is some form of danger or threat. What’s the worst that can happen and can I cope with it? The answer to the latter is usually yes. Try to remind yourself of a time when you have coped and how you came through it. If your anxiety is social then ask yourself ‘does it really matter? do I really care? There are many self-help materials out there to assist.
For many people, it can be difficult to get out of the cycle or spot the thoughts that lead to anxiety. Then, you better seek help from a professional therapist who can help guide you through your journey out of anxiety.
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