Exactly What An Anxiety Attack Feels Like, Why They Happen, And How To Stop One In Its Tracks

Photo: unsplash / Ali Pazani
Exactly What An Anxiety Attack Feels Like, Why They Happen, And How To Stop One In Its Tracks
Self, Health And Wellness

Chronic stress and anxiety attacks are, well, awful.

What is an anxiety attack?

Also sometimes referred to as panic attacks (though they are technically not one and the same), anxiety attacks are intense periods where anxiety and panic often occur suddenly and with no warning.

They affect the mind and the body and can cause extreme fear for the sufferer — especially those who’ve never before experienced such a thing — as the symptoms mimic those of other, more severe maladies.

RELATED: 4 Signs Your Panic Attacks Aren't Just Standard Anxiety — They're Symptoms Of Agoraphobia

What does an anxiety attack feel like?

It can be best described as severe dread or distress, often attended by painful physical symptoms that can include dizziness, sweating, a racing heart, chest pain, shaking, or numbness.

And then there’s what’s going on inside the mind.

A typical anxiety attack will last five to 10 minutes, during which the sufferer will experience extreme thoughts that might lead them to believe they are going crazy, or that they’re dying — none of which is true.

What causes an anxiety attack?

Stress.

Do you know the old ‘fight or flight’ response? The same concept applies here.

Being stressed out can make you panic, which leads to a chemical reaction in the body, which leads to feelings of anxiety and apprehension.

Anxiety attacks often seem to come out of nowhere, but they can be triggered by a variety of things:

  • A lack of sleep
  • Traumatic life events such as loss
  • Drugs, alcohol, or caffeine
  • Specific chemical and hormonal imbalances

If you believe you may be experiencing an anxiety attack, take a deep breath and know that anxiety attacks are highly treatable.

Since most symptoms of an anxiety attack mirror those of a heart attack, many first-time sufferers end up in the emergency room.

It’s always a good idea to rule out any physical conditions that might be causing anxiety symptoms that lead to an attack.

Once you’ve determined that what you experienced really was an anxiety attack, a few simple lifestyle changes — such as adequate sleep, exercise, and the basic skills of mindfulness for as little as 10 minutes per day — will greatly reduce the severity of or eliminate panic attacks altogether.

What is the best way to stop an anxiety attack?

Stress management may be the simple answer but there's more to managing the symptoms of anxiety than that.

The physiology of stopping an anxiety attack is incredibly simple yet profoundly elusive in a moment of panic.

The scientific reason for an anxiety attack is this: your brain and body’s natural defense system — the stress response — shifts into high gear.

See? Simple yet complicated.

RELATED: 20 Quotes That Describe What It's Like To Have A Panic Attack

If you were running away from your neighbor’s pit bull, the major stress chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol, would be needed to help you leap over the chain-link fence fast enough to avoid a nip from the dog.

If you were a zebra, once the threat was gone, you would mindlessly resume your activities of munching grass.

Zebras don’t get ulcers (or have panic attacks), because they have no prefrontal cortex — that part of the human brain which imagines or re-lives the experience of stress.

When your thinking cortex hasn’t hijacked your body, your parasympathetic nervous system naturally kicks in, to soothe and calm your body with just the right cocktail of chemicals.

This is called the relaxation response. The solution to an attack is already inside of you.

Comforted yet? We’re getting there.

You are not defective. Your mind and body are not betraying you. In fact, the opposite is true.

Your mind and body are functioning perfectly during a panic attack — perfectly in response to stress, real, or imagined.

Researchers and psychotherapists have uncovered the antidote to disorders of the mind and body caused by anxiety and fear:

A simple skill called mindfulness.

How does mindfulness work when it comes to managing stress?

In the most basic form, mindfulness is the focusing of your attention with the goal of the diminishing simulation.

To enhance the effect of mindfulness and engage your relaxation response fully, deepen and slow your exhalation and pull your next breath in deeply using the rise of your belly to expand the bottom lobes of your lungs.

For eight breaths focus only on the sounds of your breath, the feeling of your belly rising and the sensations everywhere in your body — without judgment or analysis.

Simply begin to notice what you are feeling.

Eventually, your mind will quiet itself, and begin to wander less.

Through the practice of mindfulness, you will learn how to not jump on the endless freight train of thoughts produced by your wonderful and imaginative neocortex, so you can remain still, calm and at peace.

Have anxiety attacks become a frequent, maybe even debilitating part of your life? Is it having a negative impact on your love life or life in general?

You may have panic disorder and you’re not alone.

Nearly six million American adults suffer from panic disorder.

In addition to learning how to deal with stress, try contacting a local psychotherapy practice and discuss the ways they can help you unlock the potential of your mind and body’s relaxation response.

RELATED: How To Tell If Your Anxious Feelings Are Actually An Anxiety Disorder

Sign Up for the YourTango Newsletter

Let's make this a regular thing!

Keith Miller is a counselor and therapist. For more information on his services, visit his website.

This article was originally published at Keith Miller Counseling. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Author
Expert