If you’ve ever had a true panic attack, you know how scary it can be. You probably didn’t even know it was a panic attack at first because the symptoms were so frightening. They usually include things like a racing heartbeat, difficulty breathing, sweating and shaking and dizziness or a feeling of impending doom. Sometimes, the symptoms seem like those that accompany a heart attack as they can include chest discomfort too.
Fortunately, a panic attack is rarely serious and eventually subsides on its own. Chronic anxiety, however — anxiety that lasts for weeks to months — can be damaging to your overall health. Today, many people are suffering from this type of anxiety.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults. According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, between August 2016 and January 2017, the overall average reported stress level of Americans rose from 4.8 to 5.1 on a scale where 1 means little or no stress while 10 means a great deal. The increase represented the largest in 10 years.
Meanwhile, the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada states that one in four Canadians will have at least one anxiety disorder in their lifetime. In a 2016 survey, results showed that almost a fifth of Canadian university students was diagnosed or treated by a professional for their anxiety within the past year.
If you’re one of the many who suffers from anxiety, there are solutions.
Anxiety is a general term for a feeling of nervousness, worry, fear or apprehension, and it’s a feeling we’ve all experienced at one time or another. It can be mild, such as being vaguely unsettled because you haven’t heard from your daughter in a few days, or it can be more severe, where you’re even afraid to walk out your front door.
Psychiatrists draw the line between what they call “normal” anxiety — which we all feel from time to time — and an anxiety disorder. It’s totally normal, for example, to feel anxious when you lose your job or when you’re facing a difficult illness.
An anxiety disorder occurs when the anxious reaction is out of proportion to what would be expected in a normal situation. Those with an anxiety disorder often have recurring anxious thoughts or worries that affect their everyday life.
Psychiatrists categorize anxiety disorders into seven main types:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): This is a common type of anxiety and causes people to have lasting and excessive anxiety and worries about a number of things in their lives.
- Panic disorder: A panic attack may occur after a period of prolonged stress or out of the blue. It is a sudden attack of apprehension, fear or nervousness that can lead to significant symptoms like rapid heartbeat, confusion, shaking, difficulty breathing and nausea. It tends to be short-lived and usually subsides after about 10 minutes, although some can last longer.
- Phobia: A person with a phobia has an irrational fear of something. Common triggers include animals, everyday objects or situations.
- Social anxiety disorder: This type includes things like stage fright and fear of intimacy and is the fear of being judged or humiliated in front of others.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with this disorder engage in obsessive behaviors like repeated handwashing and cleaning of objects. They suffer from repeated anxious thoughts that they can’t control.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): This is an anxiety disorder that results from some sort of trauma like sexual assault, military combat, natural disaster or serious accident. It involves symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, and avoidance of triggers.
- Separation anxiety disorder: This type of anxiety comes about when a person is separated from a person or place that makes them feel safe. The separation can bring on panic attacks.
It can be difficult to determine if your anxiety is “normal” or not, particularly if you’re going through a very anxious time in your life. No matter what kind of anxiety you have, it’s good to adopt lifestyle habits that help you cope (see more about those below), but if you think you have an anxiety disorder, it’s important to talk to a psychiatrist.
Meanwhile, here are five questions you can ask yourself to determine whether your anxiety is in the normal range or not:
- Is there an event happening that is causing the anxiety? If you have a job interview coming up or an exam, it’s natural to feel anxious about it. It’s also normal to respond with anxiety if you just had a fight with your boss or if your relationship is on the rocks. If you tend to feel anxious all the time, however, without any real reason for it — or in response to small things like having to pay the bills or go to work — it could be that you’re suffering from GAD.
- How long does the anxiety last? Normal anxiety usually rises in response to an event in your life, and then falls when that event passes. So, if you patch things up with your spouse or ace the job interview, you should feel more relaxed. If your anxiety has been going on for a month or more, it may be more serious.
- What symptoms are you having? Normal symptoms include muscle tenseness, headaches, difficulty sleeping, and digestive issues. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of panic disorders or if you feel like you can’t think straight or concentrate, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
- Can you control it? Most of us, when we’re feeling anxious, have coping techniques we use. Maybe you spend some time with a friend or loved one, exercise, listen to calming music, walk the dog, take a day off or try other ways to help yourself feel better. If these methods work, your anxiety is likely in the normal range. If you find that no matter what you do, you can’t control your anxiety, you’re more likely to have an anxiety disorder.
- Is your life affected? This is one of the best ways to know how serious your anxiety is. If you’re still doing everything you normally do, it’s probably normal anxiety. If you’re skipping work, however, or avoiding activities you usually enjoy, it’s time to take a second look. If your anxiety is making life more difficult, it may be a more serious condition.
Short-term anxiety is difficult to avoid as we all experience things in life that can cause anxiety. However, long-term or chronic anxiety can seriously affect your health. Like stress, it has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease and digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and it can also make chronic respiratory disorders like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) worse.
These connections are so strong that scientists recommend that if you have heart disease, COPD, asthma or IBS, you talk to your doctor about being evaluated for anxiety too.
Data from the Women’s Health Initiative showed that having a history of panic attacks tripled the risk of a coronary event or stroke. Two other studies found that among those who already had heart disease, those suffering from an anxiety disorder were twice as likely to have a heart attack as those who didn’t suffer from anxiety.
Other less serious but still problematic health effects of chronic anxiety include headaches, insomnia, depression, loss of appetite and loss of libido. Anxiety disorders also frequently occur along with other health issues like eating disorders and drug abuse.
10 Ways to Overcome Anxiety by Mastering Your Mind
Common treatments for anxiety include medications like anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants and cognitive-behavioral therapy. It’s best to take the long-term view of treatment as it’s mostly about incorporating habits that help you master your worrisome thoughts. Fortunately, treatment is often successful and can help you go on to enjoy an improved sense of well-being.
If your anxiety is not yet beyond your control, you can also try these techniques:
- Accept your feelings: Many times when we’re feeling anxious, all we want to do is stop feeling anxious. That creates an inner battle that can lead you to feel even more anxious. Instead, accept your anxious feelings and work instead on finding ways to cope with them. Try to relax, accept that you’re feeling as you are and that’s fine. Try not to blame yourself. Even if you’re having a panic attack, remember that it’s not dangerous and will pass if you wait it out. Accepting the symptoms can be the first step in learning to manage them.
- Mindfulness meditation: This is one of the best techniques for dealing with anxiety as it teaches you not to react to worrisome thoughts. The whole goal of meditation is to sit quietly and let your thoughts come and go without responding to them. You gain a distance from your own mind and act as a witness to all those scary thoughts without having to participate in them. This gives you the strength to better manage anxious thoughts when they arise in your life.
- Exercise: This is another effective way to deal with anxiety as it’s a natural stress reliever — it helps you process those stress hormones and get them out of your system — and it also produces “feel-good” endorphins that help you feel more relaxed and content. A daily walk, bike ride, jog or game of racquetball are all terrific options for easing anxiety symptoms.
- Muscle relaxation: This is like meditation, except instead of focusing on your mind, you focus on your body, one body part at a time. You can listen to a recording or do it yourself, going from toes to feet to ankles to calves to knees and on up, spending at least a couple of minutes at each stop along the way to tense and then relax the muscle groups, focusing on your breath in and out as you go. By the time you get to your head and neck, you’re likely to feel an overall improved relaxation.
- Distraction: When you get into a situation that triggers your anxiety, it helps if you can distract your mind away from its scary thoughts. You may focus on your breath and count your inhales and exhales, take a book along that you can read, use headphones and music or adopt a mantra you can say to yourself such as “I am safe” or “This will pass.” Find the distraction technique that works best for you and then use it. Other ideas include taking along a deck of cards and shuffling them or play a game on your cellphone.
- Journal: Keeping a journal can be a very effective way to identify your triggers and may even help you get through a very anxious moment. If you’re in a panic attack, for example, one of the best ways to cope is to write down what you’re feeling. Record the date and time and all the symptoms you’re having. Once the attack subsides, record what was going on before and what you were thinking about. Try to identify the one thought that triggered the attack, then find a way to deal with that trigger in the future. Journaling in this way helps you gain some distance from your anxious thoughts and from your symptoms, putting you in the position of being an observer instead of a participant. That distance can help your symptoms subside.
- Belly breathing: Many people suffer from breathing difficulties along with anxiety. If you’re one of them, focus on breathing from your belly. Shallow breathing occurs in the chest and can make you feel like you can’t get enough air. Put your hand on your belly and inhale so your belly rises, then exhale, pushing your belly back to your spine. Count to four for the inhale, and six or seven for the exhale. Repeat until you feel calmer.
- Talk to yourself: You are your best friend when you start feeling anxious or when you’re going through an anxiety attack. Talk to yourself as you would to a good friend. Instead of dreading the feelings, embrace them. “Great, I can practice my coping techniques.” Put one of your techniques into practice and see how it works. Meanwhile, tell yourself that it’s going to be fine, that this is your anxiety acting up, and that it will go away soon. “I feel afraid right now, but I’m a brave person, and I’ll get through this.” Above all, don’t scare yourself. Don’t allow negative thoughts like “I can’t stand this!” or “I’ve got to get out!” to remain in your mind. Replace them with statements like, “This doesn’t feel comfortable, but I know it’s my anxiety acting up and that I can handle it.”
- Stay in the moment: We rarely become anxious about what’s happening right now. Instead, we’re anxious about what we think is going to happen in the future. One of the solutions is to stay in the moment. Look at where you are, how your body is feeling and what’s going on now without thought of the future and realize that you are fine. Get involved at the moment, in what you are supposed to be doing right now, whether that be working, shopping, washing the dishes, etc. Focus on doing a good job, on paying attention to what’s right in front of you, to banish anxious thoughts about the future.
- Manage stress daily: Sometimes, a panic attack comes on in response to a long period of stress or anxiety. The more you can do on a daily basis to manage stress and relax, the less likely your scary thoughts are to build up and cause an attack. Try yoga, tai chi, daily walks, therapy, talking to a good friend or other methods of stress relief that you can do every day to keep yourself calm.
ADAA. (n.d.). Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
APA. (2017, February 15). Many Americans Stressed about Future of Our Nation, New APA Stress in America? Survey Reveals. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/02/stressed-nation.aspx
Bothwell, E. (2016, September 13). Fifth of Canadian students diagnosed with anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/fifth-canadian-students-diagnosed-anxiety
Harvard Health Publishing. (2008, July). Anxiety and physical illness – Harvard Health. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/anxiety_and_physical_illness
MindYourMind. (2013, September 19). Statistics Canada releases mental health survey results. Retrieved from https://mindyourmind.ca/expression/blog/statistics-canada-releases-mental-health-survey-results
Statistics Canada. (2013, September 18). The Daily — Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental Health, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/130918/dq130918a-eng.htm