What is an anxiety attack, anyway?
Anxiety attacks are unpleasant, unsettling, and an event most of us will likely experience to some degree at one point or another. While we all have different tolerances for anxiety, stress, and what triggers these feelings, our human “Fight or Flight” programming is universal. An anxiety attack (also sometimes called a panic attack) is essentially the body’s neurological system preparing to respond to a stressor, real or perceived.
When a person walking down the sidewalk suddenly startles at a bent stick on the ground that at first glance looks like a large snake, it is because the Fight or Flight system doesn’t know the difference between a stick and a snake, and it doesn’t care to wait around to find out … it prepares the person to respond to a possible worst case scenario threat.
Similarly, we can have anxiety attacks when we perceive an emotional, social, or other non-physical threat. Facing an important meeting at work isn’t quite the same as facing down a venomous reptile, but our bodies often don’t know that. To our bodies, all stressors are potential threats to which we might need to respond.
Why can anxiety attacks feel so awful?
The body’s Fight or Flight system prepares us to face a threat by activating certain physiological processes that can be uncomfortable. The sympathetic nervous system unleashes a flood of hormones and other naturally occurring substances that can result in increased heart rate, sweat, faster breathing, and even stomach upset as the body directs its resources to a heightened state of physiological and psychological activation.
How to cope with anxiety attacks
There are some really helpful things you can do to cope with anxiety or panic attacks. Coping skills to help with anxiety attacks address the feelings from both psychological and physiological perspectives. You may find that a combination of coping skills works best, or maybe one or two are specifically helpful for your personal experience of anxiety.
1. It’s not mind over matter, but what you mind matters. A LOT.
Yes, our brains are wired to think, and when we’re worried about something we often reflexively overthink about it in an attempt to focus our problem-solving skills on Finding The Answer. Continuing to think about a problem or something that is upsetting is akin to watching a horror movie on repeat … eventually, you’ll have nightmares, or in this case, heightened anxiety.
REMEMBER: The more times you watch a horror movie, the more likely you are to have nightmares. The more times you think anxious thoughts, the more likely you are to have an anxiety attack.
2. You don’t have to “stop” thinking about things that make you anxious to get relief
You’re absolutely right … you may not be able to “stop” anxious thoughts from popping into your head as easily as you can turn the TV channel away from a horror movie. In fact, if you could do that, it would probably mean something was wrong. Our brains are designed to think. What you can do is actively focus your attention and all that brain power on something else that is soothing or neutral.
Like a TV, our brains can only be on one channel at a time. When upsetting thoughts are intrusive, get engaged and focused on something that requires your full attention and actively pay attention to what you’re doing. For example, if you go for a walk actively name each foot (left, right, left, right) as you take each step. When your brain is busy saying, “left, right, left, right” as each foot strikes the ground, it can’t be saying “but what if … ?” etc., etc. about anything else.
3. Tap the power of your body language … to yourself.
Most of us are pretty clear on the importance of body language in interactions. We all know some pretty effective things about how to approach scared animals, small children, and other adults to put them at ease and create the right vibe. While we’re really good at knowing how our body language speaks to others, we pay almost no attention to how our body language speaks to our own minds. When we are anxious, we tend to assume postures that escalate our anxiety. As we tell someone about something that is upsetting to us, we start to sit forward on our chairs, speak louder and faster, gesture forcefully, and allow an overall more “amped up” body language that reinforces to our own minds (just like to our listener) that there is a problem.
An important skill for coping with anxiety and avoiding a panic attack is opposite action body language. This means sending soothing messages to yourself with your body language when your mind is doing the opposite. Take stock of what your body, voice, and speech patterns are doing and ask yourself, “if I were looking/listening to me right now, what message would I get about my stress level?” Make a deliberate effort to sit in a relaxed position, speak slowly and at a soothing volume, and soften your facial expression, as if you were trying to soothe someone else. You’ll find it has a remarkable effect on you.
These coping skills for anxiety and anxiety attacks are important because they will help you feel better irrespective of the issue itself. We can’t always control the status of the issues that are making us anxious, and it’s important to realize that anxiety resolution is not tied to issue-resolution. You can feel less anxious and have less panic attacks regardless of the “problem” itself.