Anxiety Attacks: What They Are and What to Do When They Strike

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If you’ve ever had an anxiety attack, you were probably certain that death was imminent. Anxiety attacks are all too common for people who suffer from a panic disorder, which causes debilitating fear and anxiety that manifests through these attacks, which can be frequent and may not have a discernible cause.

Around six million adults in America suffer from panic disorder, which, according to the National Institutes of Health, affects women twice as often as men. Anxiety attacks typically begin to occur in late adolescence or early adulthood, and although not everyone who experiences these attacks has panic disorder, anxiety attacks can nevertheless vastly reduce your quality of life.

Anatomy of an Anxiety Attack

According to Scientific American, when you’re under stress, the sympathetic nervous system engages, and adrenaline is released to help the body prepare for the fight or flight response. Once the real or perceived danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and returns the body to a calmer state.

For those who suffer from anxiety attacks, the parasympathetic system is unable to do its job, and the adrenaline continues to flow. The result is often an anxiety attack, which sets in abruptly, peaks around the 10 minute mark, and dissipates within a half hour. An anxiety attack will produce at least four of these symptoms:

  1. Accelerated heart rate
  2. Sweating
  3. Shaking or trembling
  4. Shortness of breath
  5. A sensation of choking or being smothered
  6. Chest pain
  7. Nausea
  8. Dizziness or feeling faint
  9. Chills or a sensation of prickly heat
  10. Certainty that you’re dying, going crazy, or having a heart attack
  11. A sensation of being detached from your body or losing your sense of reality

Panic disorder is a common and highly treatable condition, but leaving it untreated can lead to self-medication with drugs or alcohol. In fact, the National Institutes of Health points out that 4.5 percent of people with an addiction also have panic disorder, and 16 percent of those who have panic disorder are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

While drugs and alcohol may seem to help reduce anxiety temporarily, they are known to increase the frequency and severity of panic attacks, and getting help for a substance abuse problem is critical for reducing the frequency and intensity of these attacks.

What to Do When Panic Strikes

In the meantime, there are some things you can do to weaken the severity of your anxiety attacks and shorten their duration. First, try to stay calm. Take slow, deep breaths to help your body relax and stem the release of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol.

While maintaining your slow, deep breathing, interrupt and crowd out the catastrophic thoughts by repeating to yourself in a loud voice inside your head that you are not dying. Remember that you’ve gone through this before and have come through in a matter of minutes.

Focus on calming images, such as ocean waves rolling over your bare feet or petting a furry dog. If the negative thoughts push back, use your loudest inner voice to shout at them to stop. Walking around the room, shaking your limbs, and touching and saying the names of various objects can help ground you.

Continue breathing, and try to identify the emotion – usually fear or stress – that brought on the anxiety attack. Validate the emotion by reminding yourself that it’s perfectly natural to feel this way under whatever circumstances brought it on. Continue to fight back with your inner voice and the calming images until the fear subsides.

Treating Panic Disorder and Addiction

If you have frequent anxiety attacks and abuse or are addicted to drugs or alcohol, a dual diagnosis treatment program can help you recover from both conditions. In this type of program, each condition is treated separately, but the treatments are integrated. Treatments will likely include cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps you learn to replace fearful and destructive ways of thinking with those that are healthier, and mindful meditation, which helps you learn how to passively observe your thoughts without becoming overpowered by them.

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