Anxiety has probably become one of the most common problems of our current society. As our culture keeps pushing us to do more, have more, and be more, we are beginning to get overwhelmed with pressures and responsibilities that can lead to anxiety.
Anxiety can vary from being very mild, to very severe such as suffering panic attacks. It also can range from being isolated to one issue, such as social anxiety, or be more broad as in Generalized Anxiety Disorder where you tend to be a worrier about most things.
Of course, everyone will have some experience with anxiety in their lives. But for some it can really become a problem that interferes with their life. If anxiety goes on for too long it can really damper your mood and energy level leading to depression as well.
What is Anxiety:
Anxiety primarily is based on fear. On some level you are fearful of something, fearing judgment, fearing safety, fearing you won’t uphold responsibilities etc. This is most often noticed as worry, your mind races about the worries based on your fear. People also often notice anxiety physically such as tightness in their chest, tense muscles, sensitive stomach, headaches, and feeling edgy.
Signs of Anxiety:
If you have 3 or more of these symptoms for a length of time, you may want to consider seeking therapy.
- Physical tension
- Racing thoughts and worries
- Frequent stomach upset
- Chronic sore neck and shoulders
- Obsessive thoughts, repeating the same thoughts over and over
- Trouble falling asleep, waking often, or trouble returning to sleep
- Easily exhausted
- Panic attacks
Many types of therapy are quite helpful for anxiety including mindfulness and relaxation skills, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, EMDR, and Biofeedback.
What are Panic Attacks:
Panic attacks are a severe form of anxiety. There are many things that could lead to a panic attack including trauma, phobias, chemical or hormonal imbalances, etc. Panic attacks will most often be a very brief time period, and they seem to come on rather fast. They could be triggered by a situation, or could come out of nowhere. Often once you have a panic attack, you become more susceptible to future panic attacks from the increased fear of the actual attacks.
Panic attacks are basically our natural fight, flight or freeze response that is triggered when it is not necessary. This response is primal in all of us to protect us from danger. This means it is preparing us in many ways such as increasing our adrenaline, our heart rate, sending blood to our body’s core to protect vital organs, and so on. If we were to actually fight, or run as fast as we could, we would probably recover fine once we reached safety. However, during a panic attack, when we are not truly in danger, we are sitting still and not able or willing to do any of those things. So we begin to feel very odd as our bodies are doing things we don’t understand or need at the moment.
Signs of Panic Attacks:
- Heart racing and pounding
- Breathing feels difficult
- Upset stomach
- Lightheaded or dizzy, maybe faint
- Feel a need to flee
- Fear you might be dying or having a heart attack
- Fear you are going crazy
- Feel your limbs, or hands and feet, get tingly or numb
- Body shakes or shivers
What you can do to decrease anxiety & panic attacks:
- Diaphragmatic breathing techniques (see below)
- Do something physical to discharge the energy and fear, like push ups, run, engage your arms and leg muscles to help the blood come back into the extremities.
- Relax daily, anxiety builds like dirt, you need to shower daily
- Exercise regularly
- Shift your thoughts from your worries
- Journal your worries to be dealt with at a designated time
- Give yourself designated worry time (such as 10 minutes each morning)
- Talk it over with a trusted friend or therapist
- Stretching or yoga
- Massage, especially neck and shoulders
- Watch out for perfectionism
- Don’t pressure yourself to “keep up with the Joneses, Smiths…” or whoever your neighbors are
- Look for areas you are overbooking yourself or your family, cut back where you can
- Find things or people to make you laugh
Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique (The Key to Panic Attacks):
This type of breathing exercise is excellent for managing anxiety, and vital to coping with and preventing panic attacks. Anxiety will often lead to very shallow breathing which increases anxiety. Panic attacks often result from breath being irregular as well, possibly to the point of hyperventilating.
Practice this daily at minimum. If you feel panic starting, do this immediately. Also do this once an attack has started if you weren’t able to prevent it.
- Focus on getting air into your diaphragm. You can start by lying down, putting one hand on your chest, and one just below your ribs. Take a slow breath and watch your top hand rise as you fill your lungs. Then keep breathing in until your lower hand rises as well. That is how you will know you are filling your diaphragm, it will feel like you are filling your belly with air.
- Breathe in at a pace of about 3 seconds in, then 6 seconds out. In through the nose and out the mouth can be very relaxing.
- Continue this for a few breaths.
- Then after breathing in, hold your breath for 5-7 seconds, then breathe out.
- Return to normal 3-second breaths for another few breaths.
When therapy is recommended:
- You need help implementing the above suggestions
- You struggle to shift your thoughts and want skills in how to do so
- Anxiety is causing you distress or to feel depressed
- Anxiety is making it difficult to attend to your responsibilities
- You feel paralyzed at times, like you can’t speak or take action
- You are having panic attacks
- You are struggling to sleep
- You are taking anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication and feel you need more help
- You are having a new heightened level of anxiety following an event or trauma