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 causes a person to become hyper-focused on the body, as in pay more attention to bodily sensations in order to guess or anticipate when an attack is coming.
- It causes a person to experience more persistent anxiety as the fear creates an ongoing source of worry. This persistent anxiety also increases the chances of having more attacks.
- It causes a person to have more anxiety symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat and hyperventilation. These sensations can make a person think an attack is coming, which then makes it more likely for an attack to actually occur.
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:
- Calling Someone on the Phone - It is very hard to stay in your own mind when you're on the phone with someone - especially a supportive friend or family member. You have to think of what to say, you have to listen to what the other person is saying, and more. You also don't have the pressure that sometimes comes from seeing someone in person. If you have someone you can call, do it.
- Talk About It - Reaching out to a support person can be a safe space for a person to talk about his or her anxiety. Being open and honest can be helpful in managing the anxiety. It is OK to share what is going on in one’s mind. One of the hardest parts of controlling an anxiety attack is trying to do it without someone else noticing. It can be such a relief to “let it all out”, rather than try to hide thoughts and feelings.
- Mental Exercises - While this strategy is not helpful for everyone, sometimes clouding one’s own mind with other thoughts can prove beneficial. Some people choose to do this through mental exercises (i.e. - giving themselves math problems to solve, or accessing one’s imagination and using visualization). Mental exercises may give a person enough to think about that it becomes difficult to focus on the anxiety attack any longer.
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.
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:
- Breathe very quickly, due to nervousness
- Struggle to take a deep breath
- Ruminate about one’s breathing and attempt to change breathing patterns accordingly
All of these can contribute to hyperventilation, which can cause many other symptoms such as:
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
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:
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. Make sure it takes at least 5 seconds.
- Hold for 2 or 3 seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through your nose or through pursed lips like you're whistling. Make sure it takes at least 7 seconds.
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.