"Anxiety" is a general term that describes a variety of experiences, including nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worry, that are common in several mental health disorders. While most of us have anxiety at some time, this is completely different from an anxiety attack or anxiety disorder. Normal feelings of nervousness, worry, and fear often have a known trigger (a major exam, money issues, or seeing a bug). But when you're having a full blown panic attack or anxiety attack, the symptoms — chest pain, flushing skin, racing heart, and difficulty breathing — can make you feel as though you're going to faint, lose your mind, or die. The reality is, you won’t. The key to surviving is to learn all you can about anxiety attacks and practice the skills you need to get through them.
According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of an anxiety attack include:
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, light-headedness, or faintness
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Feeling of unreality or detachment
- Hot flashes
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Trembling or shaking
The causes of anxiety attacks are not well understood. Some traumatic life events can set off anxiety attacks if the person is prone to depression or anxiety disorders. Also, medical conditions and some medications may trigger anxiety attacks. Many believe anxiety attacks run in families with a genetic predisposition. In other words, if your mom and her sister had anxiety attacks, it’s likely you will, too.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers practical strategies in how to deal with stress and anxiety attacks, including:
- Accept that you cannot control everything.
- Do your best.
- Maintain a positive attitude.
- Learn what triggers your anxiety.
The last strategy — learning what triggers your anxiety — is important. Sometimes you can take small steps to conquer your anxiety instead of letting the trigger conquer you. For example, if meeting new people causes you high anxiety, consider going with a friend to meet the new neighbors. Once you do this with ease, you can move forward and meet people on your own. All the pent-up fear and anxiety attacks will start to resolve as you become accustomed to reaching out in your community.
Other lifestyle measures may give you some control of anxiety attacks. For instance, avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can exacerbate anxiety, causing your heart to beat fast. Eat well-balanced meals. Get plenty of sleep, especially when you are stressed. Exercise every day to feel good and stay healthy.
"These techniques take some getting used to,” says Dave Carbonell, PhD, an anxiety therapist in Chicago, but learning how to cope with anxiety attacks is important so that fear of having another won't keep you at home or limit your activities. A study in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 2013 found that multiple approaches to managing anxiety, including strategies like breathing and journaling, can help.
Here's how to stop an anxiety attack and recover.
How To End An Anxiety Or Panic Attack
How to Stop an Anxiety Attack
“People have this powerful idea to make the anxiety attack stop,” Carbonell says, but you can’t make it stop through force of will. However, if you look back at your history, you'll see that every anxiety attack does indeed stop, even if it feels awful for a while.
Your best first step stopping an anxiety attack is to simply notice your symptoms and accept that you're having an attack. This can be challenging if it's one of your first anxiety attacks, but after that you'll know more about what to expect.
Write Down the Signs of an Anxiety Attack
Once you know you’re having an anxiety attack, try to jot down a few of the symptoms and thoughts you are experiencing. This can help you put your anxiety attack into perspective.
“One of the things that worsens anxiety and can make it develop into a panic attack is looking at those symptoms in a catastrophic way,” says Cheryl Carmin, PhD, director of clinical psychology training at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center and a professor at Ohio State in Columbus.
Stop an Anxiety Attack with Belly Breathing
Feeling short of breath is a hallmark symptom of an anxiety attack. But you can make the feeling worse by taking short, shallow breaths. Try belly breathing instead to stop the anxiety attack.
Carbonell compares the type of breathing you’ll need with the breathing of infants, whose bellies rise and fall with each inhale and exhale. When an anxiety attack starts, exhale deeply, loosen your shoulders, and focus on some longer, deeper inhales and exhales that let your belly rise and fall. Place one hand on your belly if you need to feel this happening.
Relax Your Body to Ease an Anxiety Attack
It's easy to say, "Just relax," right? But once you start to observe your body during an anxiety attack, you might find that certain parts of your body clench up during an attack. Make a deliberate effort to tighten and then relax those parts of your body.
Or, if those parts feel like they won’t obey during an anxiety attack, pick a body part that will respond, such as your toes or your shoulders. The more you can breathe deeply and relax, the easier it will be to cope.
To Relieve Anxiety, Talk Out Loud to Yourself
Give yourself permission to have an anxiety attack by saying the words out loud. Remind yourself that the attack will end, and it won’t kill you or cause you to faint.
Carbonell says that understanding the physiology of fainting and reminding yourself of it is important. People faint when their blood pressure drops. A anxiety attack can make you feel like you’re going to faint, but you won’t because your blood pressure doesn't drop during an attack. Remind yourself out loud of truths like these to counter your fears.
Stay in the Moment to Relieve Anxiety Attacks
Although your gut response might be to leave the stressful situation immediately, don’t. “Let your anxiety level come down,” advises Carmin. Then you can decide if you want to leave or if there's a way to get back to whatever you were doing when the anxiety attack started. Staying in the moment will help you overcome anxiety, but it’s hard to do this at first.
“It’s one of the things I respect the most about people I work with, that they are taking the leap of faith and willing to do the things that terrify them," Carmin says. "That takes a lot of courage."
Talk to a Therapist With Experience in Anxiety Attacks
People often fear the worst when they're having an anxiety attack. Most of the time, there’s no underlying physical problem, such as a real heart attack. But you should get the medical all clear if you have repeat anxiety attacks, just to be sure you don’t need additional treatment. Then find a cognitive behavioral therapist with experience treating anxiety to help you through.