Anxiety attacks may occur at any time in any place. They're anticipatory - meaning, you can often feel an attack coming before it completely hits, often you'll feel a great deal of distress leading up to the attack before it peaks about 10 minutes in and slowly fades over the course of the next few hours.
During those first early moments when you know an attack is coming, it's not uncommon to do anything you can to try to stop it - only to find that you still have the attack anyway. The good news is that there are several strategies you can use to try to prevent an anxiety attack. We'll explore these strategies in this article.
Are You Having Attacks?
There are many different strategies that can hep you control and prevent anxiety attacks, but they require that you understand more about your anxiety. Our free 7 minute anxiety test can score your anxiety symptoms and help you learn more about how to control it.
Notes About Anxiety Attacks
There are several important things to know about an anxiety attack before it hits you. The first - and possibly most important - is that your own fear of an anxiety attack increases your risk of an attack.
This is the part that so many people struggle with. That's why you have to take my free 7 minute anxiety test now before moving forward, to give you a better understanding of how these attacks affect you.
Your own fear of getting an anxiety attack is one of the main reasons that you get these attacks. That's because your fear does three things:
- It causes you to become over-sensitive to your body, because you pay attention to the way you feel in order to guess when an attack is coming.
- It causes you to experience more regular anxiety because your fear creates a constant source of worry. That anxiety also makes you more prone to attacks.
- It causes your anxiety to create anxiety symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat and hyperventilation. These sensations make you feel like an attack is coming, which then makes it more likely for an attack to come.
Think of anxiety attacks like a cascading reaction. Often the biggest issue is the way you react to them. You feel a change in your body, like an increase in heart rate. You then get really nervous because you believe an attack is coming. This nervousness increases your anxiety and floods your body with adrenaline. It causes you to breathe faster, which causes more symptoms, which causes more nervousness and so on.
It's so important to realize that most anxiety attacks are really the response you have to what you expect to happen. Knowing this can't always prevent an attack, but this knowledge will help you with your treatment strategies.
The second thing to note is that your focus shouldn't be on completely preventing the attack - at least not at first. At first, your goal should simply be to reduce the severity and frequency of the attacks. Panic attacks are hard to stop right away, but if you weaken them they become less scary, which in turn will make it easier for you to prevent them.
Finally, one of the biggest issues with anxiety attacks is the fear that something else is wrong; that you have some medical issue, and the anxiety attacks aren't anxiety attacks at all. That's why even though it's likely you're suffering from an anxiety attack (especially if you've taken my anxiety test), you should still always see your doctor to rule out any other conditions and calm your mind.
But note: seeing a doctor will never ease your mind 100%. Anxiety attacks can make it too easy to convince yourself the doctor missed something. Never expect seeing a doctor to calm you completely over your own health. Health anxiety is a common symptom of those with anxiety attacks.
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 your own reaction. They get worse the more you focus on them and the more you fear them. That's why, when an anxiety attack is coming, you need to try to do any or all of the following:
Find a Suitable Distraction
The more you can "get out of your own head," the weaker your anxiety attack will be - if you have it at all. 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.
But somehow you need to stop focusing on it as best you can, and that's where an effective distraction comes in. Finding a good distraction can be difficult. Here are a few examples of things that work for some people:
- Calling Someone via Phone It is very hard to stay in your own mind when you're on the phone with someone. 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.
- Talking About It If you're with anyone or on the phone, share everything that's in your mind. Don't worry about their reaction. The hardest part of controlling an anxiety attack is trying to do it without someone else noticing. It's in your best interests to let it all out, rather than try to hide what you're thinking and feeling. This also takes it out of your head so you're not too focused on your own thoughts.
- Mental Exercises While this strategy doesn't work for everyone, sometimes clouding your own mind with other thoughts has its benefits. Some people choose to do mental exercises - like giving themselves math problems to solve, or imagining strange things and trying to create intricate stories. Mental exercises may give you enough to think about that you can't focus on your anxiety attack any longer.
There's no such thing as a bad strategy, however, so you shouldn't limit yourself to these choices. Anything that successfully distracts you in any way from your anxiety attack is valuable.
Another key factor of an anxiety attack is breathing. How you breathe is one of the key reasons that anxiety attacks become so severe. Ask yourself if any of the following sound like you:
- You breathe very quickly, because you're nervous.
- You feel like you can't get a deep breath, so you try to yawn or take deeper breaths.
- You think about your breathing and breathe awkwardly as a result.
All of these cause what's known as "hyperventilation," and they're the primary cause of a lot of different anxiety attack symptoms, including:
- Chest pains.
- Rapid heartbeat.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the problem with hyperventilation isn't that you're not getting air. The problem is that you're letting out too much carbon dioxide too quickly. Your body actually needs carbon dioxide, and when you breathe too fast or breathe in too much, you upset the balance.
What Are Your Symptoms?
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What makes hyperventilation even worse is that one of the symptoms of hyperventilation is feeling like you're not getting _enough_ air. That's why during an anxiety attack, it feels like your heart and lungs aren't working and most people try to take deeper breaths. These deeper breaths make anxiety attack symptoms worse.
That's why it's so important for you to learn to regain control of your breathing. You need to fight the urge to try to breathe in more, and instead do your best to slow down your breathing so that you can regain your 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 will feel highly unnatural at first, but it will help your body regain some of the carbon dioxide that it desperately needs during anxiety attacks.
Some people like to combine this with a mental exercise as well. For example, when you breathe in and out, close your eyes and imagine you're blowing a candle. Imagine the flame bouncing around. Try to breathe slowly 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 later stages of panic attacks, some people feel so weak that they struggle to walk around. But in the early stages of your anxiety attack it's usually possible to walk around, and if you can you should try to go for a bit of a walk.
Going for a walk will get your blood flowing and help your body breathe a bit easier. It also provides a bit of a mental distraction and will help you control some of the excess energy that comes during anxiety attacks. Some people even try to go for a jog in the early stages, but others find this increases their stress.
Controlling Your Anxiety Attacks
You'll notice that none of these strategies are complete cures, and in the beginning you're likely to find that you still experience at least a moderate anxiety attack. But over time, these attacks will become less severe, and the less severe the attacks are the less you'll fear them, which in turn decreases the likelihood of a future attack.
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.
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.
I've helped thousands of people control their attacks. Start with my free 7 minute anxiety test, where you'll learn how your symptoms affect you, what symptoms are caused by anxiety, and how you can stop them forever.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.