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What Is an Anxiety Attack and How Do You Stop One?

Mar 13, 2020
In any given year, anxiety disorders are said to affect an estimated 40 million U.S. residents, ages 18 and up. And, according to Venka de Rooij, a psychotherapist and clinical hypnotherapist who specializes in anxiety, trauma and PTSD, 1 in 5 people suffer from some form of anxiety. Thus, anxiety attacks, she says, are very common. But what is an anxiety attack exactly? Are there certain symptoms to let you know that you’re having one? Parade.com surveyed some experts to answer all of your burning questions on the topic, including how to stop an anxiety attack.

What is an anxiety attack?

Anxiety occurs when an individual feels tension, has worrisome thoughts, and experiences physical changes such as an increase in blood pressure. These worries can be associated with everything from concerns over facing death or illnesses to more mundane events like being late for an appointment or facing the unknown. This is generally a typically feeling in everyday human life, however, experts note that when these feelings are frequent and/or more severe in nature, one may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. More intense manifestations of anxiety can include extreme and persistent fear in the face of everyday situations. And having that intense form of anxiety for prolonged periods of time is considered an anxiety attack, a condition which can last anywhere from several minutes to weeks on end.

What does an anxiety attack feel like?

“Anxiety is related to something you perceive as stressful or threatening,” explains Rooij. She adds that the condition can be mild, moderate or severe and that unlike a panic attack, which tends to come on suddenly, “anxiety often builds gradually.”

Symptoms of an anxiety attack can present differently with each individual. Rooij describes some of the common manifestations as: feeling tense or nervous, being unable to relax, worrying about the past or future, feeling tearful and not being able to sleep. Individuals can also experience things like hypervigilance, restlessness, irritability and fatigue. And the experience, says Rooij, can also lead to behavioral changes like: “not being able to enjoy your leisure time, difficulty looking after yourself, problems concentrating at work, struggling to form or maintain relationships, or being worried about trying new things.”

How can you stop an anxiety attack?

Dr. Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of virtual psychology clinic, My Online Therapy, shares the following techniques for helping to find some calm in the face of an anxiety attack:

Take long, deep breaths.

Breathe in for 5 seconds, then out for 7 seconds. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a sense of ease and calm.

Remind yourself that you’re going to be OK.

Anxiety attacks can be scary but they can’t harm you. If you wait it out, you’ll come out the other side.

Don’t fight it.

The less you fight, the more quickly it will dissipate. Try telling yourself, “I’m safe.”

Ground yourself by dropping into your senses.
Smell your hand cream or splash some cool water onto your face.

What are the typical anxiety attack triggers?

“Anxiety attacks are usually triggered by someone feeling very worried or fearful in anticipation of a particular event or situation,” says Touroni. She adds that these occurrences usually happen to people who already suffer anxiety in a more general sense. “And considering that anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health issues (and very often go hand-in-hand), anxiety attacks are relatively common,” she explains. But this, per Touroni, doesn’t mean that they should be taken lightly. “If someone is experiencing anxiety attacks, they should always seek the support of a mental health professional,” she stresses.

While things like depression and stress can trigger an anxiety attack, Dr. LA Barlow, psychologist at DMC Harper University Hospital, explains that a person’s triggers for anxiety are very individualized. “What may trigger one person may not trigger another. Based on factors such as personality and past history, some individuals are more easily triggered and are more susceptible to anxiety attacks,” she explains.

And if you’ve experienced on before, you’re likely to experience one again. “Often times once an individual (without proper interventions), has had an anxiety attack, they are more prone to have another anxiety attack once triggered again,” says Barlow.

When should you seek out professional help for anxiety attacks?

Touroni reminds us that anxiety is a basic, human emotion that we all experience when our bodies anticipate threat or danger. But she notes that if feeling anxious and worried has become a daily occurrence for you, and it’s been happening for a long period of time, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. “There are all kinds of treatments available that can help you better manage your symptoms so it’s really important that you seek the right support as soon as possible,” she explains.

“An individual should seek professional help for anxiety, when anxiety causes problems with an individual’s daily functioning,” adds Barlow. She explains that once a diagnoses has been made that an anxiety attack is caused by anxiety disorder, it may be helpful to work with an expert in order to determine the triggers for the anxiety and seek professional help to learn coping skills and if necessary to be evaluated for medication.

This article originally appeared in Parade Magazine.