Stress, Panic Attack, or Anxiety?
Everyone has daily worries and stressors in their life. Stress can look different to everyone. We learn to cope with stress in our own ways, some better than others. Some people can brush things off with ease; others can even thrive when they are under a lot of stress (wild, I know). But for most people, stress is as annoying as a gnat flying around your face, but in the grand scheme of things, stress doesn’t drag them down. A big warning sign that your stress may actually be anxiety, is when you start to notice that you aren’t able to live your life the way that you have in the past. Does your “stress” limit you from doing things with your friends and family that you used to enjoy? Are you missing opportunities at work because you get anxious about completing certain tasks? Anxiety is basically the result of worrying about something in the future - anticipating that something bad will happen out of your control, leaving you with a feeling of uneasiness. If you allow these thoughts to take over, they can manifest into full blown anxiety, which can feel like a ticking rollercoaster that is slowly making you lose control of your mind.
On the other hand, panic attacks are very abrupt and are typically associated with an intense fear of something that is happening in that very moment. It sets off that flight-or-fight "alarm” that we’re hardwired to have when we detect danger. Biologically, a panic attack is a response of the autonomic nervous system and the amygdala (the places in our brain that let us know when we’re in immediate danger), whereas anxiety is associated with the prefrontal cortex, which has to do with planning and anticipating. Panic attacks are different from anxiety. You may recognize the feeling of having a panic attack: knots in your stomach, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, chest pain, and the sense of being completely overwhelmed. While it might feel like you are literally going to die, long-term effects of panic attacks are unlikely.
Are panic attacks real? Is anxiety “all in my head”?
Many people don’t understand the reality of these disorders because they haven’t experienced them. However to people with anxiety and panic attacks, these symptoms are very real, and can have a great impact on someone’s life. It can be exhausting to hear from friends and family to just “get it together” or “get over it”. Obviously if you felt like you could just get over these pesky symptoms, you would have already.
It’s more than stress, so what can I do?
The good news is that anxiety and panic disorder are very treatable. However, everyone is different, thus may need different treatments. Below are a few general strategies to control anxiety and panic attacks. There is a good consensus in the world of research that indicates medication in combination with cognitive behavior therapy is the most effective treatment for anxiety. Talk to your health care provider to determine to best method of treatment for you.
1. First determine why you are so anxious
- The way we behave in certain situations is based on our perceptions of the world around us. Some of these perceptions can be rational, or consistent with true reality. Distorted thinking can make us think things that are not always in tune with reality. Write down everything you do each hour of every day: what you did, what you liked about it, rate it from 1-10, and determine if it was a rational or irrational thought. Ask yourself: do you feel obligated to do things you hate just to please other people? Do you tend to make situations appear worse than they really are? Do you think people are always looking at and judging you? Do you see things as only good/bad or black/white, instead of neutral or grey? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s likely that your anxiety has tricked you into thinking some distorted thoughts. You must first determine what these thoughts are in order to reduce them.
2. Add a little bit of wellness to your lifestyle
- Decrease consumption of salt, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Add 15 minutes of stretching, yoga, or meditation to your morning routine. Increase the amount of leafy greens you are eating. Increase your consumption of omega-3 foods such as fish, fish oil, or flaxseed supplements; while there is relatively little research on the mental health benefits of omega-3, it has been found to lower inflammation and anxiety in adults. There’s no need to make these changes all at once, and cut (what seems like) everything out cold turkey. Gradually work toward a healthier lifestyle. Improved nutrition and wellness is key to getting your mind and body in the right state.
3. Reframe your responses to familiar cues
- In order to control your anxiety, you need to change the way to respond to anxiety-provoking situations. Just because you have thought something for so long, does not mean you can’t think a different way. Come up with a new way to look at stressors. For example, if your boss tells you that you need to take more initiative, you may jump to thinking “what does he know. I’m doing everything I can at work”. Reframe this situation. Consider the point of view of your boss. Maybe he’s just being straight-forward, which as your supervisor, is acceptable. Maybe you do need to put in a little more initiative. Reframe the situation over and over before jumping to the same ol’ “he’s just out to get me” conclusions. You’re in charge of your life; you are no one else's victim.
4. Thought-stopping and assertiveness training
- Thought-stopping is one of the most effective anxiety-controlling techniques. Stop your thoughts from going in that direction. Literally picture a stop sign when you start to get worked up about something. Say ‘stop’ in your head. Whisper it to yourself. Practice this at home with fake scenarios. Get yourself used to stopping your own thoughts.
- Some people have a hard time believing they have rights, let alone standing up for them. Others may know they have rights, but lack the knowledge on how to effectively stand up for themselves in a non-abrasive way. Assertiveness training is a form of behavior therapy designed to help people empower themselves - which includes an appropriate balance between passivity and aggression. The purpose of assertiveness training is to teach people appropriate strategies for identifying and acting on their desires, needs, and opinions while remaining respectful of others. Assertiveness training has been found to decrease anxiety in people who have difficulty with setting appropriate limits (saying no), and have increased people’s ability to handle daily stressors.
5. Learn diaphragmatic breathing
- When you’re anxious, you’re likely using shallow, fast breaths, sometimes leading to hyperventilation and light-headedness, which can be a scary feeling for anyone. To prevent this from happening, practice diaphragmatic breathing. Close your eyes, breathe in slowly through your nose, and count to four in your head. Feel your stomach expand with fresh air. Slowly exhale through your mouth, count to four in your head, and feel the air leave your body. Go through these steps several times until you feel relaxed.
Overcoming anxiety and getting rid of panic attacks can be a daunting task, and if this isn’t the first time you’ve researched this, you’ve probably tried these strategies before. Reframe your thoughts about treatment (see what I did there? If not, go back to step 3). You are in charge of your thoughts and behaviors. By practicing these strategies, you will be more likely to use them in real situations. Keep track of your successes, and celebrate your empowerment! Write down what you are grateful for, daily. Stick to the facts; focus on the present moment - not the past, not the future.
Thanks for reading! Do posts like these help you? Leave a comment below.
Disclaimer: The information presented is not intended to replace professional medical or mental health treatment. If you suffer from anxiety or have questions about anxiety, contact your health care provider.
“Anxiety Disorders.” American Psychiatric Association Website. www.psych.org/public_info/anxiety.cfm
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Belury, M. A., Andridge, R., Malarkey, W. B., & Glaser, R. (2011). Omega-3 Supplementation Lowers Inflammation and Anxiety in Medical Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 25(8), 1725–1734. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229