Panic or Anxiety Attacks? Are they different and how do I cope with them?

In my psychotherapy practice, one of the most common issues is anxiety and anxiety attacks. The attacks can happen when a person fears that something bad is going to happen. Anxiety is very much linked to stress, as well as feelings of fear and worry, it often involves physical symptoms. It is different from panic attacks, which is a symptom of panic disorder. Anxiety often relates to a specific event or situation, although this is not always the case. A panic attack, meanwhile, can happen without any specifiable trigger, and the symptoms are far more severe than the symptoms of anxiety.  If levels of stress and anxiety continue for a long time, further problems may develop. People often talk about panic attacks and anxiety attacks like they’re the same thing. They’re different conditions though. Panic attacks come on suddenly and involve intense and often overwhelming fear. They’re accompanied by frightening physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, or nausea.  Anxiety attacks symptoms of anxiety include worry, distress, and fear. Anxiety is usually related to the anticipation of a stressful situation, experience, or event. It may come on gradually. Panic and anxiety attacks may feel similar, and they share a lot of emotional and physical symptoms. You can experience both an anxiety and a panic attack at the same time. For instance, you might experience anxiety while worrying about a potentially stressful situation, such as an important presentation at work. When the situation arrives, anxiety may culminate in a panic attack.  It may be difficult to know whether what you’re experiencing is anxiety or a panic attack. Keep in mind the following:
  • Anxiety is typically related to something that’s perceived as stressful or threatening.    Panic attacks aren’t always cued by stressors. They most often occur out of the blue.
  • Anxiety can be mild, moderate, or severe. For example, anxiety may be happening in the back of your mind as you go about your day-to-day activities.                             Panic attacks, on the other hand, mostly involve severe, disruptive symptoms.
  • During a panic attack, the body’s autonomous fight-or-flight response takes over. Physical symptoms are often more intense than symptoms of anxiety.
  • While anxiety can build gradually, panic attacks usually come on abruptly.
  • Panic attacks typically trigger worries or fears related to having another attack. This may have an effect on your behaviour, leading you to avoid places or situations where you think you might be at risk of a panic attack.
Techniques to help with Anxiety and Anxiety/Panic attacks: 54321 grounding technique  This is one technique I often recommend to my clients because it is simple to remember and you can do anywhere. The 5,4,3,2,1 grounding technique is simple, yet powerful. It detaches you from the out of control bender in your brain like gradually attaching anchors to the boat, this method uses your senses to pull you back to earth.
  • 5, look at 5 things you can see and observe as much detail as possible of whatever you are looking at
  • 4, listen to 4 things you can hear, take time to listen to the sounds in the background and think about the pitch the tone of the sounds
  • 3, 3 things you can touch around you take time to recognise the texture, the temperature and what it reminds you of.
  • 2, use your sense of smell to smell 2 things around you, you can smell your hands or anything around you as with the others take your time and try to smell what is not obvious
  • 1, think of one thing you are grateful for and try to feel the gratitude
Repeat this process as many times as necessary. Breathe When you feel your chest tighten, your head spin, your heart pound, and your skin start to sweat, intentionally take slow, deep breaths. When your brain signals your body that it needs to panic, breathing automatically becomes more rapid and shallow, which in turn fuels increased panic. Purposeful breathing counters the physiological response to anxiety and panic:
  • Place a book on your belly then breathe slowly and deeply into your belly.
  • When you inhale, make the book go up.
  • When you exhale, make the book go down.
  • Take five seconds to inhale
  • Hold it for two seconds.
  • Take five seconds to exhale.
  • Hold it for two seconds.
  • Repeat as much as needed
Change Negative Thoughts  Research has shown that automatic negative thoughts are connected to anxiety. This means that having these kinds of thoughts can be a trigger for feelings of nervousness, panic and anxiety. One approach to deal with negative thoughts is called Diffusion; this is the practice of learning how to avoid becoming “fused” with our thoughts. Fusion is defined as when our thoughts and whatever we are thinking about become fused together in our minds. I like to think about it as becoming overly attached to my thoughts, which leads to “stinking thinking”.  You could look at thoughts as “stories”, so another way to explain diffusion is that the story and the event become “fused” or stuck together. We start believing that what our thoughts are telling us is the absolute truth.  Working with a therapist is a good way to objectively look at these thought patterns and put them into perspective, learning how to identify and then replace these automatic thoughts with more positive, realistic ones. Face Your Fears  Don’t leave, run away from, or ignore whatever is causing you the anxiety (unless of course, it is life-threatening). You must face the fear or concern directly, or it will always have control over you and cause you anxiety. Again you may need to talk to a trained psychotherapist about your anxiety and fears, especially if you’ve been exposed to the trauma of any kind. There are some proven therapeutic methods for helping people overcome the symptoms brought on by traumatic or life-threatening experiences, and those that cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Use Essential Oils  The scent has a profound effect on emotions. Breathing in the essence of certain plants, such as lavender or chamomile, can have an almost instant calming effect. When you combine your sense of smell with the practice of deep breathing, you can stop panic attacks quickly. Keep a spray bottle of lavender or chamomile on hand to mist the air or a pillow. To ward off panic when you’re on the go, saturate a sachet with essential oil and keep it in a sealed baggie. When a panic attack strikes, you can discreetly grab the sachet and breath in its calming scent, slowly and deeply.   Move  During a panic attack, the brain diverts blood flow to the large muscles of the body as part of the fight-or-flight response. Use that to your advantage. Leave a confined space and take a walk. Walk at a pace that feels comfortable for you to get the blood flowing properly again. Maximize this strategy by breathing deeply, using your oil-scented sachet, and focusing on elements in your surroundings. Add an element of distraction by listening to music while you move.  While moving or walking repeat a mantra. Mantras focus the mind, much like focus objects. Having one single word or short phrase to repeat to yourself is a rhythmic way to distract the brain from its state of panic. The most effective mantras remind you of what you value, such as peace, joy, love, or the name of an important person in your life.   These are just a few ways you can help with anxiety/panic attacks. When anxiety or worry feels extreme, it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. For someone who has an anxiety disorder, getting proper care from a health professional is important. These tips can help too, of course, but professional treatment is the only way to shake an anxiety disorder. I hope this article has helped. Please comment or contact me if you have further questions. ‘The more we think the same thoughts, which then produce the same chemicals, which cause the body to have the same feelings, the more we physically become modified by our thoughts. In this way, depending on what we are thinking and feeling, we create our state of being. What we think about and the energy or intensity of these thoughts directly influences our health, the choices we make, and, ultimately, our quality of life.’ Dr Joe Dispenza David Lloyd Psychotherapist Counsellor