Anxiety & Panic
What is anxiety?
Everyone gets anxious and experiences anxiety. It's a feeling of worry, fear and uneasiness. It can be a normal experience in certain situations such as sitting a test, moving house or going for a job interview. It's helpful in situations too as it makes you more aware such as crossing the road. Anxiety becomes a problem when it becomes so severe that it stops you from doing things you need to do. There may be no clear reason for it, or when it lasts for a long time.
What can be associated with anxiety?
Phobias are an extreme or irrational fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – a long-term condition that causes excessive anxiety and worry relating to a variety of situations
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – a condition with psychological and physical symptoms caused by distressing or frightening events, anxiety can be a symptom on PTSD.
Why am I feeling anxious?
It may be something that runs in the family, there may be things happening in your life contributing to it such as money worries, relationships, your job, your health and more. You may not be sleeping properly, eating well or something as simple as not drinking enough water. Stress can build up and this will lead to anxiety. Anxiety can also be a symptom of another condition, such as panic disorder (when you have panic attacks) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is caused by frightening or distressing events, something discussed more below.
What symptoms might I experience?
Psychological symptoms: restlessness, a sense of dread, difficulty concentrating, feeling as if you are on edge, being irritable
Physical symptoms: tiredness, dizziness, heartbeat quickens or becomes stronger or irregular, muscle tension, shaking or trembling, dry mouth, sweating excessively, shortness of breath, aching stomach, feeling nauseous, headaches, pins and needles in fingers, toes or elsewhere, insomnia or difficulty with sleep
Please note you may experience one, a few or more of these and they might not come all at the same time
What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks are a sudden feeling of overwhelming anxiety that is at times disabling. Sometimes it can happen for no reason. At times, it might feel like you are having a heart attack or you are going to die. It may last between 5 and 20 minutes and may repeat itself. We won't lie, a panic attack is one of the most frightening things you will go through, but you won't die from it.
What symptoms might I experience?
Irregular heartbeat, or it may quicken and race, sweating, trembling or shaking, hyperventilation or shortness of breath, a choking sensation, nausea, dizziness, tingling fingers or pins and needles, ringing in your ears, joints stiffening or you feel rooted to the spot, a feeling that you want to run from where you are or get out of a place you are in rapidly.
Why does this happen?
The physical symptoms of a panic attack are caused by your body going into "fight or flight" mode. This is a is a physiological reaction that happens in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. It basically goes back to when we were cave people and helped us survive. It still is vital for us in situations, it just isn't great when you get it all the time. You can also get them in the night, one offs or recurring (panic disorder as described below).
As your body tries to take in more oxygen, your breathing quickens. Your body also releases hormones, such as adrenaline, causing your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up.
PLEASE NOTE: if the following occurs then please seek medical advice.
Your panic attack continues after doing 20 minutes of slow breathing.
You still feel unwell after your breathing returns to normal.
You still have a rapid or irregular heartbeat or chest pains after your panic attack.
A lot of people ask this, but there isn't one definitive answer. It may have felt like it happened out of the blue, seemingly unconnected to anything that was going on at the time, but there is always a logical, underlying reason. Panic attacks are related to what has been happening to you and indeed happening in your life. They are related to your reactions to these events, an accumulation of various stresses has caused you to develop a range of symptoms that you may not have even really noticed but which have set you up to develop panic attacks.
The symptoms have reached a level where you can't fail to notice them anymore and one (or more) of them in particular has caused a trigger and this has caused you to finally react to these symptoms. The way you have reacted to these triggers has escalated the symptoms into a panic attack.
It might be that going through panic attacks is not your only problem. Panic attacks are common among people who suffer from anxiety, depression, phobias or sleep problems. Those who overuse substances such as alcohol or drugs are also more prone to the attacks. It can be sometimes difficult to determine the exact reason behind what is happening to us. Once we are in a cycle, sometimes it's difficult to come out of it.
Once you are in the cycle of panic you might find it difficult to stop it. Your physical feelings will get worse, you will get more anxious and you will want to stop it.
What is panic disorder?
Panic disorder is where you have recurring and regular panic attacks, often for no apparent reason. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety and panic at certain times during their lifetime, it's a natural response to stressful or dangerous situations. For someone, however, panic disorder causes feelings of anxiety, stress and panic to occur regularly and at any time. It can cause you to avoid situations, seeing friends and family and can even lead to agoraphobia.
What causes panic disorder?
The exact cause of panic disorder isn't fully understood which is applicable to many mental health conditions.
Listed below are a couple of reasons that it can be caused:
Trauma - events such as deaths, abuse, bullying and more can sometimes trigger feelings of panic and anxiety, these might be obvious reasons, but sometimes triggers can happen years later.
Genetics - having a close family member with panic disorder is thought to increase a person's risk of developing it. However, the exact nature of the risk is not understood.
Neurotransmitters - these are chemicals that occur naturally in the brain. It's thought that an imbalance of these chemicals may increase your risk of developing conditions such as panic disorder.
Some experts believe that panic disorder is linked to an increased sensitivity to carbon dioxide. Breathing in air with high carbon dioxide levels can bring on panic attacks, and breathing techniques can help to relieve or stop panic attacks which we explore more below in the 'Helpful techniques' section.