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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

How to Handle Anxiety When It Hits You out of Nowhere

How to Handle Anxiety When It Hits You out of Nowhere

Have you ever experienced shortness of breath, racing thoughts, or feelings of absolute panic that seem to come out of nowhere? That’s what anxiety can look like, and it’s important to learn how to handle anxiety when it surprises you and threatens to ruin a perfectly good moment or day.

Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders. They fall into several categories: panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.[1]

Panic disorder is commonly associated with a feeling of anxiety that hits you out of nowhere. These are often referred to as panic attacks. This article will teach you how to handle anxiety associated with panic disorder and panic attacks.

What Are the Warning Signs of a Panic Attack?

Panic disorder is characterized by sudden and unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks may feel like they hit you out of nowhere. However, there are common warning signs, and learning to identify them is the first step in learning how to handle anxiety.

Here are the common symptoms associated with a panic attack:

  • Difficulty breathing or tightness in the chest
  • Heart palpitations or rapid heart beat
  • Sweating, shaking, or trembling limbs
  • Feeling dizzy, nauseous, or faint
  • Perceived loss of control or becoming detached from the body
  • Fear of death

What Causes Anxiety?

Anxiety can have many root causes, and knowing them can help learn how to handle anxiety in a more comprehensive way.

The Fight-or-Flight Response

While an anxiety attack may feel debilitating, it is actually the body’s natural response to danger. The fight-or-flight response is activated rapidly by the amygdala, which is the brain’s threat detection center. This response happens suddenly and without warning to help you respond quickly to danger.[2]

However, the system may become overactive when you have a history of trauma, an abundance of stress, or excessive fears about the future. Your brain may become hypersensitive to potential threats and detect danger everywhere. As a result, seemingly harmless objects, places, or people may trigger sudden and intense panic.

Conditioned Fear

Psychological studies have also determined that fear and anxiety may be conditioned. For example, pairing a neutral stimulus with a negative experience may lead to the neutral stimulus becoming associated with fear.[3]

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Stated in simpler terms: a non-threatening situation, person, or object may become threatening after it is paired with anxiety.

For example, if you experience a panic attack while driving, you may start to associate driving with panic. As a result, driving may become a negative experience and general source of panic attacks.

Medical Conditions, Genetics, Stress, or Trauma

Anxiety may be the result of health conditions that mimic panic, such as heart arrhythmia or hyperthyroidism.[4] This speaks to the importance of meeting with a medical doctor at the onset of anxiety to rule out medical causes.

Genetics may also play a role in the development of anxiety. If you have a first-degree relative diagnosed with anxiety, you are 40% more likely to develop anxiety. Anxiety may also be the result of chemical imbalances in hormones such as serotonin, cortisol, or gamma-aminobutyric acid.[5]

Additionally, stress may play a major role in the development of anxiety disorders. You may be at an increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder if you have been exposed to catastrophic or ongoing stress.[6]

Lastly, anxiety is more common in individuals who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs include abuse, family challenges, and neglect. You can learn more about ACEs and find your personal ACE score on the Centers for Disease Control website.[7]

What Triggers Anxiety?

It may be frustrating to note that 53% of panic attacks occur in situations that are not threatening. The attack seems to hit out of nowhere. Alternately, the most common triggers for anxiety attacks in stressful situations are: work, driving, and shared public spaces.[8]

The crux of a panic disorder is that panic attacks lead to intense fears or avoidance of recurrent panic attacks. You may work yourself into a panic simply attempting to avoid experiencing panic. This can create a frustrating cycle if you don’t know how to handle anxiety and move away from panic when the first symptoms appear.

How to Handle Anxiety With Self-Help Techniques

Now that you have learned to identify the symptoms and causes of anxiety, you can begin to develop techniques to combat it.

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Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing

One of the most common symptoms of anxiety is difficulty breathing. Shallow breathing can limit airflow and increase feelings of stress and anxiety.[9] Diaphragmatic breathing (also known as deep belly breathing) taps into the full capacity of the lungs while restoring a state of calm.

To practice diaphragmatic breathing:

Begin by placing one hand on the belly and the other on the chest. Attempt to send the breath into the lowest part of the lungs. You should feel your belly expanding on the inhale and contracting on the exhale.

If you notice your chest rises more than your stomach, attempt this lying down. If you still have difficulties, try breathing into a paper bag. Alternatively, you can slowly inhale through the nose and fully exhale through the mouth.[10]

Diaphragmatic breathing takes practice. It’s ok if it doesn’t work on the first attempt. It is also important to practice when you feel calm.

Develop a Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness simply means present-moment awareness. Mindfulness practices have been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Mindfulness practices have also been linked with increased quality of life.[11]

Utilizing the five senses can be helpful if you are new to a mindfulness practice. One technique that focuses on the five senses is called grounding. It is a simple and quick method for returning to the present moment and regaining a sense of calm.

Try this grounding activity:

  • Notice 5 things you can see
  • Notice 4 things you can touch
  • Notice 3 things you can hear
  • Notice 2 things you can smell
  • Notice 1 thing you can taste

Repeat this activity as often as you like when learning how to handle anxiety. Think of grounding like a grown-up game of I-spy with the added benefit of increased calm.

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Avoid Stimulants and Smoking

As you have learned, people with panic disorder are hyper-sensitive to bodily sensations that mimic panic. Stimulants may trigger the fight-or-flight response. Sources of stimulants include coffee, cold medicines, and some over-the-counter medications.[12]

Additionally, people with panic disorder are hyper-sensitive to breathing abnormalities. Smoking can restrict oxygen in the brain, which increases heart rate and may result in panic.[13]

Learn More About Anxiety

Bibliotherapy is often practiced along with therapeutic support. Bibliotherapy simply means reading self-help books as a complementary treatment.

The following list is an introduction to several helpful resources:

  • Don’t Panic (Third Edition): Taking Control of Panic Attacks by Reid Wilson, Ph.D.
  • Coping with Panic: A Drug-Free Approach to Dealing with Anxiety Attacks by George A. Clum
  • The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (Fifth Edition) by Martha Davis, Ph.D., Elizabeth R. Eshelman, MSW. & Matthew McKay, Ph.D.

Learn How to Handle Anxiety With the Help of an Expert

Only a licensed therapist, physician, or medical doctor has the authority to diagnose and treat a panic disorder. It may be helpful to visit an expert if you notice major changes in your behavior, thoughts, or mood as a result of anxiety.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

(CBT) is commonly cited as the most effective treatment for anxiety. CBT can only be utilized by a trained professional and can be very helpful as you’re learning how to handle anxiety.

There are three components to CBT: Relaxation, Cognitive Restructuring, and Exposure Therapy.

1. Relaxation Techniques

Therapists may work with you to develop relaxation strategies. This may include working with your breath to create a sensation of relaxation. You will learn how to handle anxiety with coping skills, which you can utilize outside of therapy.

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2. Cognitive Restructuring

Within CBT, you can expect to explore triggers for panic, including thoughts, events, or bodily cues. A technique called cognitive restructuring helps to replace negative thinking around panic with more realistic and positive thoughts.[14]

3. Exposure Therapy (ET)

There are two forms of ET that are commonly practiced as you’re learning how to handle anxiety:

The first form of ET involves environmental exposure to panic-inducing situations. This is called in-vivo exposure.[15]

The second form of ET involves exposure to physical symptoms of panic. This is called interoceptive exposure.[16]

Working Through Therapy Anxiety

It is common to feel nervous about visiting a therapist. In fact, some people may experience increased panic symptoms at the mention of therapy. It may be helpful to practice self-help techniques before you attend your first session.

Many therapists are offering services online as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Studies have shown internet-based CBT is as effective as in-person CBT.[17] Online alternatives may also be helpful for people with limited mobility due to panic disorder with agoraphobia (fear of crowds, leaving the home, or entering a scenario where escape is difficult).

Final Thoughts

It is important to educate yourself on the warning signs, triggers, and causes of a panic disorder or panic attack. Anxiety can be frustrating to live with day in and day out, but it is possible to learn how to handle anxiety and live a calmer, more focused life.

You do not have to suffer in silence or live a limited life. There is a solution for your suffering whether you choose to start with self-help techniques or seek therapy. The most important thing is to simply get started on your path to healing.

More Tips on Handling Anxiety

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience: Treatment of Anxiety Disorders
[2] Harvard Health Publishing: Generalized Anxiety Disorder
[3] Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience: The Biology of Fear- and Anxiety-Related Behaviors
[4] Pharmacy and Therapeutics: Current Diagnosis and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders
[5] Stat Pearls: Panic Disorder
[6] Pharmacy and Therapeutics: Current Diagnosis and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders
[7] CDC: About the CDC- Kaiser ACE Study
[8] Neuroscience Biobehavioral Review: Etiology, Triggers and Neurochemical Circuits Associated with Unexpected, Expected and Laboratory-Induced Panic Attacks
[9] Harvard Health Publishing: Relaxation Techniques: Breath Control Helps Quell Errant Stress Response
[10] FRAN K M. DATTILIO , Ph.D. : Crisis Intervention Techniques for Panic Disorder
[11] Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy: Mindfulness in Mood and Anxiety Disorders: A Review of the Literature
[12] Harvard Health Publishing: Combination Therapy for Panic Disorder
[13] Harvard Health Publishing: Combination Therapy for Panic Disorder
[14] American Psychological Association: Answers to Your Questions About Panic Disorder
[15] BMC Psychiatry: Interoceptive Hypersensitivity and Interoceptive Exposure in Patients with Panic Disorder: Specificity and Effectiveness
[16] BMC Psychiatry: Interoceptive Hypersensitivity and Interoceptive Exposure in Patients with Panic Disorder: Specificity and Effectiveness
[17] Cureus: The Effectiveness of Internet Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

More by this author

Olivia Schnur

Olivia is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Registered Yoga Teacher. She writes about healing, health and happiness.

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Published on June 22, 2021

Can Coffee Cause Anxiety Or Depression?

Can Coffee Cause Anxiety Or Depression?

Waking up groggy, eyes adjusting to the light, everything is a little blurry, you stumble into the kitchen and get your first cup of joe brewin’. The smell hits you first—a nice dark roast perhaps, and then finally, your first sip, ahhhhh . . . You begin the rest of your morning routine and that beautiful, aroma-filled beverage in your cup kick-starts your day.

But have you ever wondered if your morning coffee ritual is actually contributing to anxiety or depression? If so, I got some answers for you in this article

We’ve become a coffee-crazed culture—drinking it for pleasure, to relax, as a treat, drinking it to socialize, and not least of all, for energy. Suffice to say, all that coffee craze can lead to an unhealthy dependency. How else can we keep our energy up, treating ourselves along the way, to accomplish all the things we need and want to get done in life?

So, here’s the lowdown on coffee, anxiety, and depression.

Coffee and Depression

There’s some very interesting research out there about coffee and depression. It turns out that coffee might actually be a protective factor against depression and is even correlated with a reduction in suicide.[1] That’s a pretty amazing finding for coffee lovers and those who deal with depression or suicidality!

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In fact, studies have talked about this very interesting outcome. However, before we get too excited, let’s hit the pause button and clarify a few things. I do say “might” because research is research, and although this gives us some evidence, it’s always important to remember that each of our bodies reacts differently to different environments, circumstances, or substances, and there are a lot of variables at play, so nothing is 100%—but it is a good indicator for sure!

Some of the variables to consider in these studies include the overall lifestyle of subjects and control groups as well as a super important one—whether the coffee they were drinking is caffeinated or decaffeinated as much of the research isn’t clear. So, there’s some more work to be done there, but that’s encouraging!

And that’s not all. Coffee, which is most often connected to unhealthy habits, was taken off the WHO’s list of carcinogenic foods in 2016, a somewhat rare move. The WHO even reports that coffee may protect against cancer of the uterus and liver. And they are not alone, several other, well-known and esteemed organizations, such as The World Cancer Research Fund and the US Department of Health and Human Services, have also declared that coffee consumption in moderation (three to five cups per day) can have positive effects on your health and protect you from various forms of cancer.[2][3]

When it comes to depression, it was found that it may not be only the caffeine at play, as there are other impactful components in coffee. The more notable are chlorogenic acid, ferulic acid, and caffeic acid, all of which have been found to reduce inflammation of nerves which is found to be a factor in the brains of people suffering from depression. More good stuff!

Coffee and Anxiety

The research on coffee and anxiety, however, is not quite as positive for those who suffer from anxiety as it is for those who suffer from depression. And it’s not all that surprising either, but there was something that I did find interesting in all of the reading I did on this subject.

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By and large, it was found that if you don’t suffer from anxiety, coffee will likely not have too much of a negative impact on you when consumed in moderation. However, when caffeine doses increase to more than 400mg per day, symptoms associated with anxiety may appear, such as restlessness, jitteriness, and trouble sleeping. In those who suffer from anxiety, it will take far less to exacerbate their already present symptoms of anxiety—not too surprising.[4]

But anecdotally, there is a lot of documentation about people quitting coffee for a period of time and writing about the impact on their anxiety, which was found to be fairly negligent. So, overall, if you suffer from anxiety, there is a good chance that moderate coffee consumption will not have too much of an impact on your anxiety, though it certainly won’t help it.

How Does Coffee Affect Your Mood?

When it comes to your overall mood, the thing you should think about is how your body responds to caffeine as this is the primary issue for most people—depression or anxiety aside—and our bodies have different sensitivities to caffeine.

Some people can drink espresso right before bed and have no trouble sleeping but for others, it could guarantee a night of restlessness with lots of tossing and turning! And poor sleep contributes to irritability, less resistance to dealing with life stressors as well as other poor health indicators, and hence, lowered mood.

Getting a good night’s sleep is essential especially when dealing with chronic anxiety. So, if you fall into this camp, then it might be good for you to moderate your coffee consumption or even just evaluate and assess for yourself to see what the impact might be on a period of time with no caffeine.

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It’s important that you get to know your body and how it reacts to different substances and environments. Running a little experiment on yourself can be a fun way to get to know and understand your body and how you metabolize caffeine.

The Bottom Line on Coffee, Anxiety, and Depression

Overall, the research says that there are potentially a few health benefits when it comes to depression and coffee drinking than on coffee and anxiety—where it is found to have a negative or neutral impact. Furthermore, there is an array of other potentially beneficial health impacts from drinking coffee.[5]

Given all of this various research—some of it very promising (around depression) and some of it not surprising (anxiety)—coffee is not going to eradicate any mental health concerns, though it does not necessarily seem to cause them. The most important thing to consider when thinking about the impact of coffee drinking on your anxiety or depression is that it can aggravate sleep issues, which is a really important piece of your self-care when dealing with depression, anxiety, or any mental health issue for that matter.[6]

Wanna Cut Back on Your Coffee Drinking?

If you are looking to cut back a little on how much coffee you drink or even just run that little experiment on yourself that I was referring to, then you can start with a few simple tips.

1. Cut Back Gradually

Caffeine is a stimulant, and you will likely feel some physiological symptoms, such as a headache, brain fog, and general fatigue. This will last for a day or two, possibly more depending on how much caffeine you have been consuming. Before you start cutting back, it is good to know about how much caffeine you are drinking in a day. That way you can gradually cut back by a beverage each day or so.

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2. Make Sure You Stay Hydrated

Coffee—or caffeine for that matter—is a diuretic, which means that it will naturally dehydrate you, so cutting down will most likely help with dehydration. However, with that said, it is still important to make sure you are drinking enough fluids as that will help minimize the effects of the withdrawal.

3. Get Plenty of Rest

You will naturally feel a little tired when cutting back on caffeine/coffee, make sure you get enough rest, giving your body a chance to adjust and recuperate from the withdrawal.

4. Increase Your Physical Activity

Try to increase your physical activity a little. Physical activity is known to increase mood, which will counter the irritability you may feel when cutting back on your coffee intake.

5. Take Notes

Keep a little log or journal to write down how you are feeling on different days and how much, if any, caffeine you are drinking at various points in your “trial.” Think about your mood, how you feel, how you are sleeping, and possibly how you feel it is impacting your relationships and your daily activities. When you go back to look at your data, you will be able to assess the impact of caffeine and coffee intake more accurately.

Keep in Mind

How much coffee we drink and its impacts vary widely depending on many, many factors. The best bet for you is to know yourself, pay attention to how coffee impacts you, talk to your doctors, and consider your personal life circumstances. Taking all of these steps will help you to make an informed decision for yourself, which will likely change over time.

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Featured photo credit: Drew Coffman via unsplash.com

Reference

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