Mental Health

4 Simple Steps To Help Cope During An Anxiety Attack

Anxiety disorders come in many different forms. There’s generalised anxiety (which is suffered by about 3.1 % of the US population), OCD, panic disorder, PTSD and a whole range of phobias.

For some, anxiety is part of who they are. For me, in some ways that is true. My anxiety is a large part of my work-ethic, my decision-making and how I conduct myself socially. But sadly it also plays a dangerous part in my jealousy, my fear of having and/or losing friends and my fear of failure.

It is sometimes hard to distance yourself from anxiety. Especially when the physical symptoms make it hard to retract from the situation.

A racing heart, a churning stomach and crying make it a little difficult to be “objective”.

One helpful method for separating yourself from your anxiety, for me anyway, is realising and accounting for the fact that your body is doing these things because of an imbalance in chemicals.

I do this using 4 stages, with particular focus on reducing physical symptoms of anxiety. This is simply advice and not coming from a medical professional, so do not stress about doing things correctly – just follow the stages which help you the most with your anxiety. For additional help, please visit a medical professional.

Stage 1: Understanding

Hyperarousal, or a state of heightened “alert-ness”, is caused by a hyperactive amygdala. This activates your “fight or flight” response, causing the physical symptoms of anxiety.

The “fight or flight” response is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn causes your physical symptoms of anxiety.

A racing heart is caused by epinephrine and norepinephrine stimulating the beta adrenoceptors in the heart, also causing an increase in blood pressure.

Your body believes that you are in a life and death situation, but you are not.

You will be okay.

Stage 2: Dialogue

Try to have a little dialogue with yourself. Remind yourself that this is just your amygdala being hyperactive.

It helps if I imagine standing next to myself and going over this information:

Your amygdala is overactive.

Your beta adrenoceptors are being stimulated, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure to provide your muscles with more oxygen to respond to the fight or flight situation that you are not in.

This is all a physical response.

Stage 3: Breathing

Try to breathe deeply and slowly when you are having a bad episode of anxiety.

Slowing and deepening your breathing will decrease your blood pressure and heart rate due to changes in the chemical composition of your blood (based on the decreased amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen you’re breathing in).

Additionally, slowing your breathing gives you something to concentrate on while you’re in the situation causing the anxiety, which may help your body realise that you don’t need to fight, nor fly.

You may find it helpful to breathe in through your nose, pause, and then out through your mouth in a regular pattern.

Keep your breathing regular for some time, and by now you may be able to feel your heart rate slowing.

It is important to keep repeating stages 2 and 3 simultaneously, as breathing will help you focus on calming yourself and calming yourself will help you focus on breathing.

Stage 4: Distraction/ Evaluation

When coming down from an anxiety or panic attack, some like a distraction but some prefer to evaluate their situation.

If you choose to distract yourself, you may do so in a way you seem fit. As anxiety can be mentally exhausting, I recommend you choose an activity which will not require a higher level of concentration than you are able to handle so that your stress levels do not rise.

You may enjoy going for a walk or other slow-paced activites like yoga or meditation, or you may benefit from simply “switching off” and escaping into television, books or projects you enjoy.

If you choose to analyse your situation, ask yourself these questions:

– Why did my body react this way?

This is particularly important for those with post traumatic stress, as your amygdala may have become hyperactive due to exposure to a trigger. It is your choice whether you deal with your triggers using avoidance or exposure – a mix of both works for most people. Don’t feel any pressure to prematurely expose yourself to any triggers.

Sometimes it is difficult to figure out why an episode of anxiety occurs- if there even is a reason. If you can’t find a reason or trigger for your anxiety, skip to the next question.

How’s best to deal with this?

If anxiety/panic attacks are a regular occurrence to you, you may benefit from therapy or use of herbal or conventional medication. Certain forms of therapy (such as cognitive behavioural therapy) can help you deconstruct your though processes and discover why your attacks may be happening and how they can be prevented.  Medication such as beta-blockers help prevent symptoms of anxiety such as a racing heart (they block the receptors mentioned above), and herbal remedies such as Valerian are thought to reduce symptoms of mild anxiety and insomnia.

Additionally, you may want to practise meditation to help decrease your physical symptoms and increase your mental well-being after an attack. With slow, deep breaths, as mentioned above, you will likely become aware of a reduction in your blood pressure and heart rate.

Paired with repetitive phrases or sounds, this can help you focus after or during an attack.

Everyone is different, so different treatments or methods have varying effectiveness. For more about potential treatments of anxiety, follow this link or speak to a medical professional.

Additional support from friends and family will help when they are available, but following the above steps you may be able to handle your anxiety alone, with practise.

If you’d like to learn more about the physiology mentioned in this article, you can read here about the amygdala and here about heart rate and blood pressure.

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Young, mixed-race student living in Scotland. Ready to talk about racism, sex education and feminism!

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