Understanding Anxiety

Guy standing in middle of street with everything around him in a blur

Have you ever had that feeling that something is just not quite right? A feeling of unease? Or has your heart ever started racing for no reason, while you break out in a sweat? Or you started shaking? These can all be signs of anxiety. It might be just something mild like feeling uneasy about something, or it might be much worse, where you feel you heart is going to jump out of your chest and you can’t breathe.

Anxiety is not always a bad thing. When anxiety is normal it is part of our survival system, it is our body warning us that something is wrong – almost like a healthy nervousness. This normal anxiety is usually fleeting and as soon as you realise there is no threat you can easily carry on with what you were busy doing. BUT, anxiety can also be debilitating. For some people anxiety can get out of control and take over their lives. If anxiety has such a profound impact on your life that you cannot function normally or that you get panic attacks it is time to seek help.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry

What is a panic attack?

Where anxiety usually occurs in response to a perceived stressor or threat, panic attacks can occur without a trigger (there doesn’t need to be a man chasing you with a knife for you to have a panic attack). Panic attacks are intense and disruptive and sometimes the physical symptoms are worse than the anxiety. Panic attacks often involve a sense of “unreality” and detachment.

Common Signs and Symptoms of a Panic Attack:

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Heart palpitations or racing heart
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Choking feeling
  • Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy

Self-help tips for anxiety and panic attacks

A panic attack can happen at any time, you can be alone, or with friends busy having fun, or even just driving to work. But no matter how powerless or out of control you may feel when having a panic attack, it’s important to know that there are many things you can do to help yourself. The following self-help techniques can make a big difference to helping you overcome panic:

Learn about panic and anxiety. Simply knowing more about panic and anxiety can go a long way towards relieving your distress. Read up on anxiety, panic disorder, and the fight-or-flight response experienced during a panic attack. You’ll learn that the sensations and feelings you have when you panic are normal and that you aren’t going crazy.

Learn how to control your breathing. Hyperventilation brings on many symptoms (such as light-headedness and tightness of the chest) that occur during a panic attack. Deep breathing can relieve some of these symptoms of panic. By learning to control your breathing, you can calm yourself down when you begin to feel anxious. If you get panic attacks frequently you will get to know the warning signs and might even be able to stop it from becoming a full-blown attack.

Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, activities such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness and progressive muscle relaxation strengthen the body’s relaxation response. The body’s relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response we experience with anxiety and panic and practicing these techniques will therefore help you to be calmer in stressful situations.

Reach out to family and friends. Symptoms of anxiety can become worse when you feel isolated, so reach out to people who care about you. Having a good support network will help easy some of your anxiety.

Get in some exercise. Exercise is a natural anxiety reliever so try to get moving for at least 30 minutes on most days. Rhythmic aerobic exercise that requires moving both your arms and legs, for example walking, running, swimming, or dancing can be especially effective. Being active also releases your happy hormones so it is a win-win situation.

Get enough restful sleep. Insufficient or poor quality sleep can make anxiety worse, and even lead to depression. So try to get a good night’s sleep whenever possible.

It might be that you do not suffer from anxiety or panic attacks yourself, but know someone who do. Either way it is important to be prepared and know what to do when confronted with such a situation. Our article on “How to help someone who is having a panic attack” has some very useful information. It is also a good idea to get some help in the form of counselling to help ease your anxiety. A well trained professional will help you get behind the root cause of the anxiety or panic attacks and help you process any underlying trauma if there is any.

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