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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

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.

How to Handle Anxiety When It Hits You out of Nowhere

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Last Updated on January 21, 2021

5 Powerful Self-Care Ideas for When Life Is Stressful

5 Powerful Self-Care Ideas for When Life Is Stressful

Stress affects everyone, invariably in different ways. Regardless of how stress shows up in your life, when it does, it takes over, making it difficult to stay in the present moment or show gratitude for what and who we have in our life. In the eye of the stress storm, everything is tossed around into oblivion, and self-care ideas go out the window.

However, this is the moment when self-care is the most important. When you notice that you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, or powerful emotions, it’s time to get back to a sense of balance by showing yourself love and compassion.

How Does Stress Show Up?

On a physical scale, stress tends to be behind many of our typical ailments, such as headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, or body aches and pain.[1] When we’re in stressful situations, our body activates our fight-or-flight response through the stress hormone, cortisol.

According to the American Institute of Stress, when the body is in this mode due to stress, “the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.”[2]

While our fight-or-flight response is extremely helpful when we’re in situations that risk our survival, not every situation is that dire. However, the body doesn’t know how to differentiate between such scenarios.

Rather, we become accustomed to seeing every stressful situation as life-threatening, and we become locked into this fight-or-flight response automatically. This causes us to burn out because our body is constantly fighting or fleeing from threats that are not causing us any real harm.

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On a mental and emotional scale, stress affects your thoughts, feelings, and ultimately your behavior. Everything is interconnected. When stress takes a toll on our bodies, this has a domino effect on how we process our thoughts and feelings. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see correlations between depression and anxiety when it comes to dealing with stress.

Self-Care Ideas to Combat Stress

Below are five self-care ideas for combating stress in your life. Consider implementing them into your daily routine for the best results.

1. Start a Brain Dump Writing Exercise

When you’re overwhelmed with thoughts, it can become very difficult to stay present and focused. This could affect you at work, in school, or in your relationships. It’s as if your mind were filled to the brim with thoughts that are constantly competing for your attention. If left unattended, this can affect your performance or your state of being, so it’s important to turn to self-care ideas in these moments.

One exercise to get this under control is called a brain dump, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Start by getting comfortable with a pen and paper or your favorite journal. Without any special formatting or introduction, just start writing any and all thoughts that come up.

Consider your paper a blank canvas onto which you’re going to spill every thought, no matter how small or unimportant. This can look like a laundry list, a jumble of words, or a paragraph.

Don’t focus on how it looks or how well it’s organized. The idea is to give your thoughts an exit. Once they’re on paper, they’re no longer swimming in your head for attention.

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Once you have them written down, leave them as they are. We have a tendency to want to fix our thoughts. Instead, allow them to simply exist as they are—they’re not right or wrong. Consider coming back to this exercise daily or whenever you feel like you have a lot on your mind.

2. Sweat It out

There is nothing more therapeutic than moving the physical body when it feels the weight of stress. Energetically, we carry our day in our body, mostly in our neck, shoulders, and hips. If we’ve had a particularly difficult day, that energy is going to feel tense and unsettling. This is why it’s so important to move and really break a sweat!

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America[3]:

“Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem.”

Find what exercise regimen works for you, and commit to it for a few days per week for your mental and physical health. Scientists have also found that even 10-15 minutes of aerobic exercise can have a tremendous effect on your body. Go for a run, take a spin class or a power yoga class, or dance the stress away in Zumba. Whatever gets your heart rate up and breaks a sweat is one of the perfect self-care ideas to keep the stress away.

3. Seek the Care of a Therapist

Sometimes writing out our thoughts and feelings doesn’t seem quite enough. This is common and to be expected. After all, we are complex human beings who want to understand and process our emotions on a deeper level. This is why spending time in a regular therapy session is so beneficial!

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In the presence of a professional, we can open up about what stressful situations we’re going through. We don’t have to keep our emotions bottled up, and we know that our honesty will be protected and safeguarded.

Additionally, when we’re feeling stressed, we often want to simply vent and get things off of our chest. Having someone on the receiving end who will simply listen and hold space is a truly healing gift. We can often leave the session feeling more empowered, seen, and offloaded of the stress we brought in.

Lastly, we may be able to receive guidance from our therapist on a particular situation we’re struggling with. Having someone else’s perspective on something we’re too emotionally close to can be just the right solution and a great addition to our self-care routine.

Here are more self-care ideas from a therapist: Self Care Tips During Difficult Times (A Therapist’s Advice)

4. Interrupt Your Day

When it comes to self-care ideas, this may seem like a derailing technique, but give it a shot! Interrupting your day means introducing something entirely new or random into a routine that is very monotonous or typical.

If your work or school day is the same sequence of events every single day, bringing in an interruption can be quite conducive to your productivity and creativity. This can look like pausing in the middle of the day for a yoga stretch at your desk or in your office. It could be playing your favorite playlist in-between meetings or taking a walk outside for lunch. Not only does this stir up new energy for your day, but it can also help you de-stress

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As I said above, when we’re too close to a situation or conflict, we have a harder time breaking away. We’re so emotionally and mentally invested that we don’t see how that proximity is affecting our health. So, interrupt yourself when you’re feeling stress coming on, and do something fun, random, and refreshing to feel good.

5. Get Some Energy Work Done

Energy work is anything that is being done to improve the circulation and energetic flow of the body. This could be a massage, a Reiki session, chiropractic adjustment, or acupuncture[4].

Moving the body helps move the energy that is blocked or stuck. This is why exercise is so important. However, sometimes we need a session where that work is done for us by a licensed professional.

In such treatments, we have the luxury to relax and receive the benefits of the treatment, making it a beautiful way to squeeze in self-care!

You can find even more stress management techniques in the following video:

Final Thoughts

Stress is, unfortunately, a common part of every life. It affects everyone, but to what extent it affects you is personal. One thing is for sure, and that is that stress has a tremendous effect on our physical, mental, and emotional state.

This is why regular exercise is so important, as well as mental stimulation and emotional release. These self-care ideas won’t necessarily guard you from ever feeling stressed again, but they will certainly help you manage it better and offer amazing health benefits along the way.

More Self-Care Ideas

Featured photo credit: Alisa Anton via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Mayo Clinic: Stress Management
[2] The American Institute of Stress: How the Fight or Flight Response Works
[3] Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Physical Activity Reduces Stress
[4] Medical Acupuncture: Does Acupuncture Reduce Stress Over Time? A Clinical Heart Rate Variability Study in Hypertensive Patients

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