Understanding Anxiety and Panic Attacks

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a word we use to describe feelings of unease, worry and fear. It incorporates both the emotions and the physical sensations we experience when we are worried or nervous about something. Although we usually find it unpleasant, anxiety is related to the ‘fight or flight’ response–our normal biological reaction to feeling threatened.

We all know what it’s like to feel anxious from time to time. It’s common to feel tense, nervous and perhaps fearful at the thought of a stressful event or decision you’re facing–especially if it could have a big impact on your life. For example:

  • sitting for an exam
  • going into a hospital
  • attending an interview
  • starting a new job
  • moving away from home
  • having a baby
  • being diagnosed with an illness
  • deciding to get married or divorced

In situations like these, it’s understandable to have worries about how you will perform, or what the outcome will be. For a brief period you might even find it hard to sleep, eat or concentrate. Then usually, after a short while or when the situation has passed, the feelings of worry stop.

When does anxiety become a mental health problem?

Because anxiety is a normal human experience, it’s sometimes hard to know when it’s becoming a problem for you–but if your feelings of anxiety are very strong, or last for a long time, it can be overwhelming.

“Going out of the house is a challenge because I [have a] fear of panicking and feel that I’m being watched or judged. It’s just horrible. I want to get help but I’m afraid of being judged.”

lf anxiety is affecting your ability to live your life the way you’d like to, it’s worth thinking about ways to help yourself and what kind of treatments are available.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

If you experience anxiety, you might find that you identify with some of the physical and psychological sensations in the table below. Anxiety can feel different for different people, so you might also experience other kinds of feelings, which aren’t listed here.

Physical sensations:

  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • tense muscles and headaches
  • pins and needles
  • feeling light headed or dizzy
  • faster breathing
  • sweating or hot flushes
  • a fast, thumping or Irregular heart beat
  • raised blood pressure
  • difficulty sleeping
  • needing the toilet more frequently, or less frequently
  • churning in the pit of your stomach
  • you might experience a panic attack

Psychological sensations:

  • feeling tense, nervous and on edge
  • having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
  • feeling like the world Is speeding up or slowing down
  • feeling like other people can see you’re anxious and are looking at you
  • feeling your mind Is really busy with thoughts
  • dwelling on negative experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again (this is called rumination)
  • feeling restless and not being able to concentrate
  • feeling numb

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an exaggeration of your body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement. It is the rapid build-up of overwhelming physical sensations, such as:

  • a pounding heartbeat
  • feeling faint
  • sweating
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • chest pains
  • feeling unable to breathe
  • shaky limbs, or feeling like your legs are turning to jelly
  • feeling like you’re not connected to your body.

“I could feel all these physical symptoms building inside me, literally filling every part of my body until I felt completely light-headed and disembodied. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, I just wanted to get out, go somewhere else, but I couldn’t because I was on a train.”

During a panic attack you might feel very afraid that:

  • you’re losing control
  • you’re going to faint
  • you’re having a heart attack
  • you’re going to die.

“My teeth would chatter uncontrollably and my whole body would tremble, I’d hyperventilate and cry with panic as the feeling that I was going to fall unconscious was so convincing.”

When do panic attacks happen?

It’s different for different people. You might have a good understanding about situations or places that are likely to trigger an attack for you, or you might feel that your attacks come without warning and happen at random.

Panic attacks can also come in the night while you’re asleep, and wake you up. This can happen if your brain is very alert (due to anxiety), and interprets small changes in your body as a sign of danger.

Experiencing a panic attack during the night can be particularly frightening, as you may feel confused about what’s happening, and are helpless to do anything to spot it coming.

“I can’t sleep due to panic attacks and nightmares. When I fall asleep within an hour I am up, soaked, heart racing and shaking.”

How long do panic attacks last?

Most panic attacks last for between 5 and 20 minutes. They can come on very quickly, and your symptoms will usually peak within 10 minutes. Sometimes you might experience symptoms of a panic attack which last for up to an hour. If this happens you are probably experiencing one attack after another, or a high level of anxiety after the initial panic attack.

How often might I have panic attacks?

Again, it’s different for different people. You might have one panic attack and never experience another, or you might have attacks once a month or even several times a week.

What can I do about panic attacks?

Having a panic attack can be a truly terrifying experience, but there are things you can do:

  1. Challenge fearful thoughts about panic attacks. If you are not afraid of panic attacks, they are much less likely to continue or cause problems in your life.
  2. Avoid avoidance. In other words, don’t do anything different because you have had panic attacks. Don’t avoid activities, places, or people because you have had a panic attack. Do the things that scare you as long as they aren’t harmful or dangerous.
  3. Get out of the habit of monitoring physiological symptoms such as heart rate. If you notice yourself doing this, direct your attention externally by silently describing the world around you.
  4. For more information or for additional help, contact Counseling Services 24/7 at (909) 869-3220.