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How to Prevent an Anxiety Attack Before it Hits You

Jenna Jarrold, MS, LAC, NCC
How to Prevent an Anxiety Attack Before it Hits You

Anxiety attacks can occur at any time in any place. They are anticipatory, meaning a person can often feel an attack coming before it hits. Many report experiencing a great deal of distress leading up to an anxiety attack before it peaks (about 10 minutes in), and notice it slowly fades over the course of the next few hours.

Those with anxiety attacks often search for ways to intervene and stop their attacks when they notice one is coming on. And while some may prove more effective than others depending on the person, there are several strategies one can use to try to prevent an anxiety attack. 

Notes About Anxiety Attacks

There are several important things to know about the progression of anxiety attacks. The first, and possibly most important, is that the fear a person may have of experiencing an anxiety attack can actually increase the likelihood he or she will have an attack.

This fear of the anxiety attack itself is one of the biggest triggers of peoples’ anxiety attacks. This is because the fear does three things:

It can be helpful to think of anxiety attacks like cascading reactions. The biggest issue is often the way a person reacts to them. When someone who suffers from anxiety attacks feels a change in his or her body, (like an increase in heart rate), thoughts and worries about a potential attack often occur.  This nervousness then increases one’s anxiety and the body becomes flooded with adrenaline. Increased adrenaline leads to rapid breathing, which causes its own set of difficult symptoms. 

It is important to realize most anxiety attacks are really a response to what a person expects is going to happen. And while knowing this does not always prevent an attack, it can be helpful in guiding one’s approach to treatment. 

Also important to note is that it could be helpful if a person with anxiety attacks does not solely focus on how to prevent attacks from ever happening. While this would be ideal, it is not necessarily realistic, especially right away. Instead, focusing on decreasing the severity and frequency of attacks is a good place to start. Beginning to manage the severity and frequency of anxiety attacks can help them feel less scary, which in turn, can be beneficial in a person continuing to manage them. 

Finally, one of the biggest issues with anxiety attacks is the fear that something else is wrong (i.e. - thinking there is a more serious medical issue) and that the anxiety attacks are not actually anxiety attacks. If a person has a history of anxiety attacks, then it is likely the symptoms experienced are due to that anxiety. Yet, the only way to be absolutely certain is to have an assessment by a medical professional. Nonetheless, for some people, even seeing a doctor and having all medical issues ruled out, does not ease their minds. 

How to Prevent Anxiety Attacks When You Feel Them Coming

You feel your heartbeat increase. You feel a cold chill go down your spine. You feel your anxiety increase dramatically. You know that an anxiety attack is coming. What can you do?

Remember, anxiety attacks are often the result of one’s reaction to his or her anxiety. The more a person focuses on the anxiety, the worse that anxiety becomes. This is why, when an anxiety attack is coming, instead of focusing on the anxiety, it could be helpful to try any or all of the following:

Find a Suitable Distraction

The more a person can get out of his or her own head, the intensity of the anxiety attack can be less (or in some cases, avoided altogether). Of course, this is easier said than done. In the early stages of an anxiety attack, you're likely focused and noticing every little change in your body, and all of them are likely to cause you significant stress and discomfort.

Finding a positive distraction as a way to shift the focus away from the anxiety, can be helpful. Different distractions may work better or worse, depending on the specific person and his or her specific anxiety.  But many report the following distractions are helpful:

There's no such thing as a bad strategy, and different approaches work for different people.  So, experimenting with various distractions (even those beyond the above-mentioned ideas) is encouraged to find what works best for each person. 

Slow Breathing

Another key factor of an anxiety attack is breathing. How a person breathes is one of the main contributing factors to why an anxiety attack becomes more or less severe. Those who struggle with anxiety attacks likely:

All of these can contribute to hyperventilation, which can cause many other symptoms such as: 

However, contrary to popular belief, hyperventilation does not mean a person is failing to get adequate air. Instead, hyperventilation causes a person to expel too much carbon dioxide, and because the body needs a certain level of carbon dioxide, this can cause increased physical and mental distress.  

What Are Your Symptoms?

Most people report the most difficult symptoms of hyperventilation to cope with is the feeling of not getting enough air. This is why, during an anxiety attack, a person may feel as though his or her heart and lungs are not working and attempt to take deeper breaths. These deeper, forced breaths can often make anxiety attack symptoms worse.

Thus, it is vital to learn ways to regain control of one’s breathing. Fighting the urge to try to breathe in more can be difficult, but essential to doing what will truly be helpful - slowing one’s breathing.  Slower breaths can help the body regain the necessary carbon dioxide.  The easiest way to do that is the following:

It may feel fairly unnatural at first, but it will help the body regain adequate levels of carbon dioxide to assist in managing the anxiety. 

Some people like to combine moderating their breath with mental exercises as well. For example, while slowly breathing in and out, some may close their eyes and imagine they are blowing a candle, and attempt to breathe slow enough that the candle will not blow out.

If you can slow down your breathing successfully enough, you'll often find that the attack becomes less severe, and may be prevented altogether.

Go For a Walk

In the midst of a full blown anxiety attack, some people feel so weak that they struggle to walk normally. But if a person can notice the early warning signs of an anxiety attack, it could be helpful to go for a walk. Going for a walk will get the blood flowing and help the body breathe at a more normal, consistent rate. Walking can also provide a bit of a mental distraction and help control some of the excess energy that comes during anxiety attacks. Some people even try to go for a jog, but others find this increases their anxiety.

Controlling Your Anxiety Attacks

While there is no proven “cure” for anxiety attacks, the above-mentioned approaches can be helpful in moderating anxiety and managing the severity and prevalence of anxiety attacks. 

Your knowledge can also be power. Learn more about your anxiety and what causes your symptom, and the less you'll find your anxiety symptoms to be as frightening. If you can control the way your mind goes out of control during an anxiety attack, you'll reduce the severity of the attack, and possibly prevent one altogether. Whether it’s breathing exercises, distractions, or some other technique, there are options out there that can help you prevent a severe anxiety attack from affecting your life.

Still, preventing is going to be your best bet for avoiding anxiety attacks in the future. That is why you'll also need to start taking steps to reduce your anxiety in general. The less anxiety you have in your daily life the less likely you'll have severe panic attacks in the first place. Through therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, self-help, or any other long term treatment strategies, anxiety attacks can be both reduced and managed provided you are ready to make the commitment.

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