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Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Anxiety can creep up on you like a hundred fingers in the darkness of a grope room, although it certainly doesn’t feel as good.   It’s that racing heart, the sweaty palms, tension and shakiness in the body, the signs that something is not right and it feels terrible.

Anxiety, that wonderful emotion that seems to come at the most inopportune time and when it is the last thing you really want happening. The worst part about anxiety is that it is often likely to happen when it is really important for you to be calm cool and collected. For example, anxiety might present itself when you are approaching a member of the same sex or opposite sex and you want to make a fabulous impression. Or, perhaps you are scheduled for an interview for a job or getting ready to write an exam.

Anxiety often strikes when you feel it is vital that you perform at your best.   At times, when you most feel the need to appear to be wonderful, anxiety can cause you to act like a complete and utter fool.

Many people experience almost constant levels of anxiety without even knowing it.   Drink and drugs, or constant distraction with work or other things are ways that people often use to manage this constant anxiety.

Most people have experienced anxiety on steroids – the dreaded panic attack. It can feel quite hideous when the anxiety symptoms become accelerated until you can actually think that you are losing control, feel that you are going to faint, and can get physical pains.   The experience can often be so intense that people can have a strong fear that they will have another panic attack, and this fear can lead to another one actually occurring.

Panic attacks are often caused by feeling anxious, and then thinking about how anxious you are getting, and then actually getting anxious about being anxious. “My god! I’m becoming anxious. They are seeing how anxious I am and think that I’m a mistake, this is terrible… oh my god, I’m really feeling terrible!… I’ll probably start to panic, lose it and then look even worse and this will lead to a catastrophe and I couldn’t stand it!” Panic attacks are quite the vicious cycle!

Anxiety has a good reason for being. It is a way for your body and mind to respond very quickly to what seems like a threat. Your blood supply is diverted away from your digestive system and other organs, and goes towards the major muscle groups. Your body is filled with the speed-like hormone, adrenaline. This is so that we can fight something that is trying to kill us, or run rapidly away.

Now this was a wonderful response about a million years ago when our hairy ancestors were wandering the jungles with clubs. However, intense anxiety is not such an appropriate response in the boardroom of a company while being interviewed by people in suits.

We do actually need some arousal to perform with anything. If you have no arousal, you won’t achieve much at all, and with too much arousal, you start becoming anxious, and increasingly lose the plot. So it’s useful to be able to tell where you are on the scale of anxiety when you want to perform well.

If you are feeling overly anxious or panicky, the first thing to do is to remember to breathe. Count as you take deep slow breaths.

If you are in the middle of panic, then look at something outside yourself and look at it very closely and think about it in detail. Look at a painting, a photo, a piece of equipment and start describing it in detail. The printer is two tone grey. Made of plastic mostly with a glass plate for the LED display. It has one green button, one red button, an odd purple button, two grey buttons…. You get the idea. This is important as it gets you focussed away from the thoughts and perceptions that are causing the anxiety in the first place and also makes sure you have a good supply of oxygen.

Verbalise the descriptions and also listen to what you are saying. Speaking instead of simply thinking of the description increases your oxygen supply because you have to breathe to keep speaking out loud. Listening to what you are saying as you describe the object helps focus your mind.

After this, become aware of the fact that it is the way you are choosing to interpret what is going on rather than what is actually happening to you that is causing the anxiety.

Think about the things you are thinking of when you make yourself anxious. It is usually about the fact that the situation is absolutely terrible and a catastrophe and that you cannot cope with it, or can’t stand it. Challenge these thoughts by asking questions such as “Where is the evidence that I actually can’t stand it? ….I have ‘stood it’ in the past.   How does my worst fear rate against being severely disabled in a car accident and dying a slow painful death, is it as catastrophic as I am imagining?”.

Mindfulness and making time for you are important in managing your anxiety. Make yourself a priority.   Gentle exercise such as walking a few times a week, and a good relaxation tape can also help ease long term anxiety.   When relaxing, don’t force or put effort into it. Rather, simply allow yourself to feel relaxed. Often, the more you try and relax, the more anxious you’ll get.

If you find you are unable to deal with anxiety, or feel that it may be due to difficult events in the past, a counsellor or psychologist may be of some benefit.

Lisa Kunde | CFHP
Lisa Kunde

Lisa Kunde has ten years experience working as a psychologist with adults in both private and public hospital settings (oncology, palliative care, chronic pain, cardio-pulmonary, psychiatric and alcohol and other drugs units).

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