Anxiety is necessary for our survival, it is our body's way of warning us of potential danger. However, sometimes our body becomes over-protective and warns us unnecessarily or our anxiety comes at the wrong times or is too easily triggered.
While it is fine to feel anxious when there is something to fear, or when we are anticipating something new, it is not helpful when it comes at inappropriate times or stops us from doing things we want or need to do. In those situations it is important to seek help from a professional.
Several things may trigger anxiety or make it worse. These include alcohol, nicotine, lack of sleep, too much caffeine, cannabis and other drugs and certain medications. However, many people experience anxiety without any of these triggers.
One of the main problems with anxiety is that it can stop us from testing reality. For example, if we are anxious about going in lifts and never enter one, we never experience being in a lift and everything being ok. We avoid what we are anxious of and therefore never get to find out if our fears are valid and usually they will not be.
Anxiety itself is not evidence that there is something to fear.
Experiencing a panic attack can be very frightening, typical symptoms include may feel very similar to those of a heart attack, for example, racing heart, chest pains, dizziness, a feeling that something is very wrong, a sense of loss of control. The important thing to remember is that although a panic attack is frightening and very unpleasant, it will not harm you and in most cases will be over in 10 to 20 minutes, it is not likely to last more that 40 minutes. A panic attack is a process with an end, although it may feel like forever at the time, it will pass.
In a way a panic attack demonstrates the protectiveness of your body. It is responding to what it perceives as danger but is being very over-protective, a bit like a smoke detector going off when you strike a match.
If you experience an attack try to keep in mind that the attack will not last very long, it will pass in minutes, not hours but it is a process and needs to run its course so do not fight it. If you can stay where you are and sit down.
When we are afraid we get tense so try to relax your body as much as you can, especially your shoulders, try to imagine you are a puppet whose strings have gone lose.
Think about your breathing, breathe through your nose, take one deep breath and let it out slowly, then take regular breaths, not too deep or quick but regular breaths through your nose.
It may help to focus on something external, for example, the pattern on the ground or floor, details on your shoes, leaves on a tree.
It may help to distract yourself through a mental task, for example, counting back from 1000 in 3's or 7's, going through the alphabet backwards, mentally counting the number of windows in your home.
It may help to assess how anxious you are on a scale of 1 to 10, at some point the level will come down.
Most importantly remember the panic attack will not harm you and it will pass.
How to help someone having a panic attack
Keep calm and reassure, encourage the person to stay where they are, sit if they can, talk gently and calmly in a quiet voice and remind them they are safe and this will pass. Encourage them to breathe through their nose and to relax. Slow down, help them to slow down.