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How to Handle Anxiety When It Hits You out of Nowhere

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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

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Olivia Schnur

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

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Last Updated on November 8, 2021

How To Do Focused Meditation Any Time

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How To Do Focused Meditation Any Time

Do you often feel stressed for most of your day? Maybe you always feel a burden that you just can’t get rid of? Focused meditation might be your answer.

In this article, I’ll explore what focused meditation is, how it differs in the pool of many styles of meditation, and how to implement and start this practice today. Likewise, I’ll highlight the benefits of a focused meditation practice for your overall health.

What Is Focused Meditation?

Meditation is the practice of becoming self-aware through breath and attention to connect the mind, body, and spirit.[1] Meditation as a whole can change the structure and function of our brain. That being said, focused meditation or a guided meditation for focus is by far the best one. Meditation for focus and concentration can come in different forms. Experienced meditators use the following:

  • Mindfulness – this meditation involves us to be focusing on your breath and observing thoughts. This allows us to focus on our feelings without becoming too absorbed in them.
  • Concentrative – a meditation that gets us to focus on a particular point; be it a word, breath, object, or a point in the space you’re meditating. This is meant for us to pay attention to that point and prevent our minds from getting distracted.
  • Moving – this meditation involves gets us to focus on slow and repetitive movements similar to yoga or tai chi. The goal is again to be focusing on your breath while relaxing your body and mind with the movements.

Focused meditation, also known as concentrative meditation, is the practice of meditating and bringing your attention to one single object. This object can be something practical and tangible, such as a mandala painting or a candle flame. It can also be something abstract, such as a phrase (also known as mantra) or a sound (such as Om).[2][3]

Whatever you settle your attention on becomes the focal point. None of these object examples are better than others—they are simply choices depending on what you’re looking to get out of your practice. For example, practitioners will choose candle gazing to interpret the images the flame makes in the shadows while others will choose a mantra because that particular phrase or word empowers or heals them.

How Does It Differ From Other Meditation Styles?

All meditation styles and practices overlap and build on each other. Their basic foundation is the same: to bring the practitioner insight and introspection.

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There is no right or wrong way to meditate, however, the various types of meditation can enhance particular qualities. Based on your personality and needs, one type of meditation may be more useful to you than the other. The 9 types of meditation are:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Spiritual meditation
  • Focused meditation
  • Movement meditation
  • Mantra meditation
  • Transcendental meditation
  • Progressive relaxation
  • Loving kindness meditation
  • Visualization meditation

Focused meditation, specifically, is the practice of focusing on one single object for the duration of the practice. How this differs from other meditation styles is that it gives the practitioner something tangible to do: focus. It’s almost like giving your mind an action to perform—listen to this sound, repeat these words, watch this flame, etc. This is also one of the reasons why this particular meditation style is great for beginners!

One of the biggest challenges in any meditation practice is that the mind gets carried away and we lose ourselves to random thoughts. This “obstacle” is actually a style of meditation in and of itself called Vipassana.[4] However, in focused meditation, we give the mind something to do so that it’s not simply left to its own devices. This type of meditation is beneficial for beginners and for practitioners who prefer some structure and guidance to their meditations.

The Benefits of Focused Meditation

In this style of meditation, what you’re really doing is exercising your mental muscles. Your brain is highly affected by dedicated and concentrated meditation practice.

Scientists have performed countless studies on focused meditation and have found that active meditators have more gray matter volume in their brain and, therefore, offsetting the cognitive decline that comes with aging. So, not only does practicing focused meditation help you learn how to focus better on certain tasks, but it also improves similar functions, such as memory. [5]

Likewise, it helps in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, which our society is currently crippled with.[6] By settling your attention on an object, you are essentially building your ability to observe your thoughts and sensations from a place of objectivity. This allows you to detach from negative self-talk that is often the breeding ground for depression and other mental illnesses.

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From a guided meditation for focus to practicing it yourself, daily meditation for focus comes with several benefits:

  • It’ll reduce stress
  • Help you to control anxiety
  • Enhance your self-awareness
  • Improve attention span
  • Helps you to focus on the present moment
  • Increase your creativity and imagination
  • And boost your patience and tolerance for things.

How to Practice Focused Meditation

Here are six tips to help you practice focused meditation. Based on your availability and interest, these tips may change and evolve. That’s the point: to create a structured practice that caters to your needs.

1. Find a Comfortable Seat

As with any meditation practice, comfort is truly key. The physical body responds to meditation practice by alerting you to whether it is comfortable and supported or stressed out and in pain. This is best observed in practitioners who tend to slouch and lose the tall, supported spine that is essential to meditation practice.

A simple rule in meditative sitting is to ensure that your hips are higher than your knees. Therefore, choosing to sit in a chair instead of on the floor may be a smart decision or perhaps propping yourself up on a cushion. For meditation techniques overall, it does not matter how you sit. All that matters is that you are supported and comfortable sitting for some time.

2. Choose Your Object of Focus

Every meditation training session is going to be different because no single day is the same for any one person. Therefore, experienced meditators know that choosing an object is more about listening to what you need at this time versus following any doctrine or “rule.”

If you’re not sure and have a hard time deciding, make focusing on your breath and pay attention to the inhale and exhale is a good option. Then, assign each inhale and exhale a number, and once you reach 10, start over. This is one of the simpler methods of keeping your mind occupied—by giving it a task. This also trains your mind, and over time and with practice, your mind will easily focus on an object without too much effort.

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3. Set Your Desired Time or “Go With the Flow”

If you have a structured routine and would like to stick to your schedule, by all means, set a gentle timer for how long you’d like your meditation to be. This is also your opportunity to throw out the notion that any meditation has to be a certain length of time to be correct—it does not.

Likewise, if you have the time, you can also listen to your body and come out of your meditation when you feel it’s right to do so. This is often a beautiful practice of listening and tuning in.

4. Relax Your Body as You Focus on Your Meditation

Typically, when we are focusing on something, we tend to tighten our body. Observe this next time that you’re concentrating on something: your jaw will tighten and your shoulders will squeeze up towards your ears.

As you sink into your meditation, keep this in mind and check in with your body every once in a while. Let your shoulders sink down your back and release any tension through your jaw and face. Lastly, relax your brow and let your eyes be heavy in their sockets. Then, return to your object of meditation. Observe if your meditation changes at all by relaxing your physical body.

5. Return to Your Breath and Object When You Get Distracted

Notice that I didn’t say “if you get distracted.” That’s because you definitely will drift off with random thoughts or get pulled away from your object of focus. In meditation, distractions are almost guaranteed. Therefore, it’s your opportunity to practice detaching yourself from feeling guilty or inadequate to continue.

Over time and with practice, you will find it easier to stay with your object of focus. In the meantime, however, notice when you get distracted. Pause and take a big breath in and out. Check in with your physical body and relax. Once you’re ready again, return to your object of focus. Meditation is simply one long cycle of wandering and coming back to yourself.

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6. Journal Your Experiences

When your meditation practice has ended, another powerful practice is to jot down any experiences that you felt. There may have been insights and “downloads” that you acquired during your session that you may want to record.

Likewise, you could write about any challenges that you faced. These are great lessons that will continue to show up for you, and it’s nice to keep a journal of them to see how they evolve and progress over time (and they will). Lastly, you can write about what works and what doesn’t, as far as picking your objects of meditation go. This way, you can learn what you most associate with and feel comfortable with.

While these steps are simple, it’s easier said than done. Whether you’re starting out with a guided meditation for focus, loving kindness meditation, or transcendental meditation, anticipating failure the first time you try these things is healthy. Furthermore, congratulate yourself for even making slight progress like noticing and returning to the present moment and noticing the sensations you experienced.

Final Thoughts

If practicing meditation causes you to feel distracted and unsupported, give focused meditation a go! With the help of an object to bring your attention to, it structures your meditation time and offers guidance and support.

Dedicating yourself to this style of meditation will help increase your memory, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote better cognitive function. Even though any style of meditation is a powerful way of taking care of your mental health, focused meditation gives your mind a tangible task with which to grow and strengthen.

More About Focused Meditation

Featured photo credit: Lua Valentia via unsplash.com

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Reference

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