Anxiety and panic attacks – What is it and how do I deal with it

Anxious woman sitting in corner on the floorAnxiety is a part of everyday life, but for some people anxiety can be so extreme that they find it difficult to function optimally and find it debilitating. Being anxious is a basic human reaction, but an anxiety disorder can have a severe impact on everyday living. Suffering from anxiety is your brain working overtime unnecessarily and perceiving almost everything as a possible threat. 

What causes anxiety?

People who struggle with anxiety often wonder what causes anxiety. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer.

Feeling anxious is your body’s way of saying something is not right here, alarm bells go off, and your fight or flight response kicks in.

Anxiety may be caused by several things. At the top of that list is probably unresolved trauma, although some people also believe that it can be genetic. Anxiety can also be a learned behaviour – which is good news, because any learned behaviour can also be unlearned.

In most cases though anxiety is not likely caused by one specific incident or thing. It can be a culmination of life experiences. But if you have a specific fear or phobia, it might be because of a specific incident. For example, having been in a car crash and now you have a fear of driving.

If you have family members who also struggle with anxiety you might be pre-disposed to struggle with anxiety yourself, but be careful not to fall in the genetics trap. It does not mean it is genetic and there is nothing you can do about it. It just means that the therapeutic approach might be a bit different. Growing up with an anxious parent who does not have their anxiety under control would inevitably also affect the child. The effects or symptoms may start to show in childhood or only much later in their adult years. If your anxiety manifests in adulthood it might mean that there is some childhood trauma that is unresolved.

Having severe anxiety can sometimes also lead to panic attacks. Panic attacks can come out of nowhere and can be very frightening.

What are panic attacks?

Although panic attacks are not uncommon (research suggest about 10% of people suffer from panic attacks) a lot of people do not realise that they are having one. A panic attack doesn’t necessarily have a trigger and can just appear out of nowhere.

A panic attack is a sudden feeling of overwhelming fear and apprehension. This feeling is very strong and is often accompanied by some of the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness, feeling like you are about to faint
  • Shortness of breath, feeling like you can’t get enough air
  • Vertigo and/or nausea
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Feeling too hot or too cold
  • Tingling in your fingers or toes
  • Extreme chest pains
  • Feeling convinced that you are having a heart attack and are about to die
  • Feeling paralysed from terror

People who have frequent panic attacks will come to recognise the signs and triggers – if there are any, and know that they are about to have a panic attack. With therapy they will even learn how to stop a panic attack from happening.

Please note that it is always important to remain safe, so if you have any of these symptoms it is still important to have a check-up by a medical professional to rule out any physical causes for your symptoms.

How do we treat anxiety and panic attacks?

There are multiple treatments available for anxiety and panic attacks, therefore there is no reason to suffer unnecessarily. If you struggle with anxiety there are a lot of options that can help to improve your quality of life.  Anti-anxiety medication is a good option, but I would recommend some counselling as well. If you do not receive counselling the anxiety will come back as soon as you stop medication.

It is important to find out what the root cause of your anxiety is and receive counselling for that. Different kind of therapies are available to address problems that might cause anxiety. These therapies include, but are not limited to, cognitive behaviour therapy, narrative therapy, talk therapy and NLP. Personally, I believe that an integrated approach that incorporates different styles of therapies work best.

What can you do?

There are some things you can try if you start to feel anxious or feel a panic attack coming on that can relieve your symptoms.

  • Breathing exercises
    Taking a few deep breaths will slow down your heart rate and make you feel calmer. It is important that while doing these breathing exercises your exhale should be longer than your inhale – this is what regulates your heart rate and nervous system. A good measure would be 5 counts in and 7 counts out. But it is up to you and what your body can handle. You can do this a few times a day even if you are not feeling panicked. It teaches your body to regulate itself.

  • The 5-4-3-2-1 method
    Look around you and name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Counting and concentrating on numbers redirects the brain into a more logical state of mind. This will also ease the symptoms of anxiety or panic.

  • Grounding exercises
    Grounding exercises is done to bring you back into the here and now. A very effective technique for severe anxiety is holding ice in your hands for lighter anxiety you can take off your shoes and go stand outside on the grass for a few minutes.

  • Moving your body
    Try doing some quick exercises like jumping jacks. This will complete the fight or flight response and trick your brain into thinking the perceived threat is over.

There are a lot of techniques that you can try. Not all of them works the same for everyone, so it is important that you find the right techniques for you. Counselling can help you to resolve your anxiety and also help you to learn some valuable tools for when anxiety or panic attacks does arise.

Scroll to Top