Having an Anxiety Attack?

by Andrea M. Darcy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Your heart starts pounding, you feel sweaty, your stomach is tense and you realise you are clenching your hands and feel afraid. Anxiety symptoms can come on fast and heavy, and can feel totally overwhelming. How can you navigate an anxiety attack?

How to handle an anxiety attack

What helps if you find yourself in a full-blown anxiety attack?

1. Accept instead of resist.

Having a huge surge of anxiety? Panicking about it tends to make things worse, giving you ‘anxiety about anxiety’, or triggering panic attacks.

Think of anxiety like a wave. The more you can relax into it instead of fight it, the sooner it can pass.

I am experiencing anxiety. But it is just anxiety. I’ve gone through this before, and it always passes eventually.

2. Remind yourself that you are not the anxiety.

Another thing that worsens anxiety is identifying with it. This can make us feel like the anxiety will kill us, or we’ll never be the same. Or leaves us mired in shame as we think it’s our ‘fault’.

It’s anxiety, it’s not who I am. It’s something outside of me that I’m experiencing. Many people experience anxiety, I am not alone in this.

3. Relax your body and breathe.

Anxiety symptoms are very much a physical as well as mental experience.

And because of this, we can use the body to help reverse the symptoms. This includes relaxing your muscles, and breathing deeply right into your diaphragm.

Good tool to learn here that therapists use are progressive muscle relaxation, a mindful body scan, and mindful breathing.

Relax my shoulders, relax my jaw, unclench my arms and hands, scan my body from head to toe, tensing then relaxing anywhere I feel my body is tight. How else can I try to relax? And then breathe into my belly. How much longer can I make the in and out breaths? How much more even?

4. Trigger the parasympathetic nervous system.

Anxiety is such a physical experience because it triggers our fight, flight or freeze response. This throws the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, giving you that buzzy ‘high’ feeling as your body floods with chemicals like cortisol.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is the ‘rest and digest’ system. So how to trigger it?

  • again, breathe deeply
  • tap two fingers lightly and rhythmically on your lower lip
  • or breathe slowly through a straw
  • use touch, hugging yourself, or running your fingers along your bare arms
  • or have someone else give you a nice hug
  • try yoga poses while breathing deeply.

5. Slow down your anxious thoughts.

Anxiety is driven by fear-based, illogical thinking. One illogic thought leads to the next like a runaway train - unless we know how to slow down or stop it.

If you’ve tried CBT therapy, then you will know the tool of balanced thinking. Catch the thought, state its opposite, try to find a balanced through between the two.

Another good technique here is mindfulness. Try a quick ‘5 senses’ version where you scan your environment and find one thing for each sense. A smell, a colour, a feeling, a sound, the taste in your mouth. Then pick one and over focus on it as long as you can.

And then get support.

It’s important to call the right person when we are anxious. A worried family member, for example, can make us even more panicky. And a friend who brushes us off as ‘silly’ can leave us feeling ashamed.

Only reach out to someone you trust to understand and talk you down.

Don’t have that sort of support? A talk therapist is a great option. They completely understand what you are going through and can help you work through your anxieties. And the faster you seek support for regular anxiety, the less chance it develops into the more difficult to treat anxiety disorder.

Time to get on top of your anxiety before it gets on top of you? Book a therapist now at a price you can afford and get talking this week.

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