You should know that anxiety is part of life- it is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences at some point in their lives. People feel anxious or nervous when they have a problem at work, or before making an important, life-changing decision, or even before taking test.
However, anxiety disorders are much different than this. An anxiety disorder is described as persistent and overwhelming anxiety and is considered to be a serious mental illness. For individuals suffering with an anxiety disorder, the fear and worry can be constant- and even crippling. Often, depression and anxiety disorders go hand in hand.
If you’re suffering with an anxiety disorder, you should know that it doesn’t have to cripple you- there are some things that you can do to calm yourself down, even in the midst of an anxiety attack.
How do You Know You’re Experiencing an Anxiety Disorder?
Of course, there are several different types of anxiety disorders, and the symptoms will vary depending on the type you have. However, the general symptoms include:
- Feeling panicky, fearful, and/or uneasy
- Difficulty sleeping
- Cold/sweaty hands and/or feet
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth
- Inability to be still/calm
- Muscle tension
- Numbness/tingling in hands/feet
Causes of Anxiety Disorders
Researchers have been unable to pinpoint an exact cause of anxiety disorders. However, one thing is known- anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses, are not due to character flaws, personal weakness, or even a poor upbringing. As research continues on mental illnesses, it is becoming clearer that many of them are a result of a combination of factors, including environmental stress and changes in the brain.
Just as other brain-related illnesses, anxiety disorders could possibly be a result of issues in the functioning of brain circuits regulating fear and other related emotions. Studies have revealed that severe and/or long-lasting stress can cause changes in the way the nerve cells in these circuits send information from one area of the brain to another.
On the other hand, other studies have revealed that individuals with specific anxiety disorders have changes in specific brain structures that control memories linked with strong emotions. Additionally, it has been revealed that anxiety disorders tend to run in families. This means that they can be partly inherited by one- or both- parents.
Specific environmental factors can also cause/contribute to anxiety disorders. These environmental factors include traumas or other significant events- and can trigger an anxiety disorder in an individual who already has other factors in place.
How to Calm Yourself During an Anxiety Attack
An anxiety attack can be quite scary, but it is possible to limit when they occur- and you can calm yourself down when you start to experience one. Following are some calming techniques.
If you’re in the midst of a panic attack, you’re most likely hyperventilating. Even if you’re not, deep breathing can greatly reduce your stress and provide much needed oxygen to your brain to help you to redirect your focus. Consciously try to take no more than eight breaths per minute. Inhale for four seconds, hold for two to three seconds, and then exhale for four seconds.
If you find that you’re breathing too quickly, use a paper bag to slow down your breathing. Hold it over your mouth, progressively slowing down your breathing until you’re able take deep breaths.
Continue this for several minutes until you notice that your thoughts are clearing and your muscles are relaxing.
If you find yourself in the middle of an anxiety attack, you can distract yourself from your fears by using mental distractions. You can do one- or a combination of- the following until you notice that you’re calming down.
- count backwards from 100 by 3’s
- recite the presidents in order
- say the lyrics to your favorite poem/song
Progressive muscle relaxation
This is a process of slowly and consciously relaxing each and every muscle group in your body. This works to accomplish two things: it distracts your mind from your fears and it helps to relax your muscles.
Start with the muscles in your head/face and then work your way down. Do this by:
Tensing the muscle group for approximately 10 seconds- then release. You can do this multiple times for each muscle group, but usually once is enough.
The major muscle groups that you can tense/relax include the following:
Stop and Replace
This is a process where you stop your anxious thoughts and then replace them with something that makes you happy or gives you a feeling of peace. For example, if you’re anxious about a flight you’re going on and you’re worried that you’ll crash, stop that thought and replace it with happy thoughts about your upcoming vacation with friends and/or family.
For this technique, you will think of a place that makes you feel relaxed and peaceful. This could be home, being with someone you love, or even a favorite place to vacation. As you think of this place, think of all the details- this way, you’re focusing your entire mind on the imagery. You can do this with eyes opened or closed, though closing them can make it much easier. Once you feel calm and can think clearly, you can stop.
The point is to reduce your anxiety- not to ignore it. Admit that you’re afraid and take some time to analyze your fears. Are you truly in danger? Or are you using “what if” questions and worrying about something that may not even happen? Realize that you’re fearful, but not in danger- this will help you to relax quite a bit.
Using music therapy can help you to relax and make you happy. Create a list of songs that you enjoy listening to. When you are experiencing a panic attack, pop in your earbuds or noise-cancelling headphones to help you to concentrate on the music. As you listen, consciously focus on the various parts of the music- the sounds of the instruments, the lyrics, etc. This helps to get your mind off of your fears.