Feeling short of breath or lightheaded? Can you feel your heart racing? Do you break out into a cold sweat? Do these feelings come on without warning or over minor issues? You may be suffering from an anxiety attack, a frequently experienced problem. The cause of anxiety attacks varies greatly. If you have ever suffered an anxiety disorder, you know that it involves the entire body. Some of the symptoms of anxiety are trembling, increased heart rate, light-headedness, dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath and cold feet and hands.
Stress is at the Heart of an Anxiety Attack Stress is a physical, mental and emotional response to a challenging personal situation. Stress is a natural, normal part of life - whether it is negative or positive stress. For example, planning a wedding is often, though not always, a positive stressor. Positive stress helps you focus. The loss of a spouse or partner is a negative stressor. Negative stress diminishes your quality of life and your immune system, making it more likely that you will have an anxiety attack and the symptoms that come with it.
Physical Reasons for an Anxiety Attack Physical causes of anxiety and panic usually come from earlier life experiences involving injury or fear of injury. As a result, people may be uneasy about heights, being in water, or traveling by airplane. Cognitively, there is a part of the mind that allows us to believe a situation is dangerous. We feel a threat which may or may not be real. In this case, anxiety comes from the thought that an event is going to place us in danger or somehow take away our freedom or our sense of control.
The Many "Shapes and Sizes" of Anxiety
NORMAL ANXIETY(also referred to as situational anxiety). We all suffer from this type of anxiety at various times and to varying degrees. There is usually a concrete event that triggers it. Anxiety over taking a test, for example, is a natural reaction. Likewise, anxiety about a new job might also be a natural and appropriate response to an unfamiliar situation. The feelings might be coming from a previous experience that was unpleasant or had a negative outcome.
GENERALIZED ANXIETY occurs when a person experiences unrealistic anxiety about a number of events in their life, over an extended period of six months or more. The person finds it difficult to control worry, is restless, doesn't concentrate well, and has difficulty falling or staying asleep.
PANIC ATTACKS are short intense attacks of panic that come "out of the blue." Individuals feel intense fear or terror and worry that they are "going crazy" or are "losing it". During the episode, symptoms such as shortness of breath, a pounding heart, chest pain and choking sensations are common. Many panic sufferers end up in an emergency room in the mistaken belief they are having a heart attack. Just the fear of having a second panic attack may trigger recurrences. The condition is then called a panic disorder.
PHOBIC DISORDERS include agoraphobia and social phobia. Agoraphobia is the fear of leaving the house or going out in public. Social phobias go hand in hand with agoraphobia. The person fears loss of control that might cause harm or embarrassment to themselves or others. The fear of public speaking or the fear of eating in public, are examples of mild forms of social phobia.
OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE DISORDER is described by repetitive behaviors that are unreasonable to the average person. When the compulsion is severe, it may be so time consuming that it interferes with a person's daily life routines. One common example is excessive hand washing, due to an extreme fear of contamination by germs or dirt.
SPECIFIC PHOBIA may be the excessive fear of a specific external object or situation. You might, for example, fear elevators or snakes and spiders, or expressways and the like. Specific phobias like these might complicate your life if you live or work in tall buildings or live in the country and commute daily.
POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD) is a re-experiencing of an extremely traumatic event wherein the person witnessed or was confronted with death, serious injury or threatened injury to themselves or others. The person's response was intense fear, horror and helplessness. The trauma is persistently re-lived in memory, dreams and flashback episodes. Sufferers may have outbursts of anger, difficulty with sleep, and be extremely wary. They may become loners who fear the future and avoid attachment to others. Symptoms may seriously impair work and family life.
SUBSTANCE INDUCED ANXIETY DISORDER is the direct effect of abusing a drug including alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal substances. A recovering addict will often suffer from anxiety during withdrawal, or even months later. Treatment for drug or alcohol abuse becomes more difficult because the recovering person should not use medications normally prescribed for relief from anxiety
HELP IS AVAILABLE
The best treatment for anxiety and phobias is one that is tailored to your needs. To get that help, several steps are advised.
Steps for Getting Help
• First, get a thorough physical examination. This will rule out possible medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and hypertension, which cause similar symptoms.
• See your workplace Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor. He or she will talk with you about your symptoms and discuss the kinds of treatment that might work best for you. Your EAP counselor can help you select someone who has an understanding of anxiety disorders. It is most important that you feel comfortable with the therapist you choose.
• The use of certain medications, on a time-limited basis, to treat anxiety disorders may be part of your therapy program. Seek advice before taking medications. Some anti-anxiety medications, such as Valium, are habit-forming.
• Eat and drink sensibly, get sufficient rest, find ways to relax and clear your mind of worries. Exercise releases tension and builds endurance.
• Find a good listener such as a friend, a family member, or a member of your church who may serve that role. At work, call upon the services of your Employee Assistance counselor. Talking out a problem can be a great relief to you and can reduce stress and anxiety to an acceptable level.
• For those recovering from substance abuse, the use of behavioral or cognitive therapy as part of treatment is recommended. Active involvement with AA or Narcotics Anonymous support groups offers the recovering person the help and understanding of others who have successfully remained abstinent and sober.
Consider a Stress Management Course
Since stress is a major contributor to anxiety and related disorders, you should assess your stress management skills. If you do not have good stress management skills, the chances are increased that you will have trouble with anxiety disorders. You know that normal life events can be stressful. If you and/or those close to you are experiencing a number of life changes in a short period of time, seek help in managing the emotional and physical signs of stress. Anxiety and stress share many of the same causes and symptoms.
Written by Helene King, Ph.D.,CEAP; Edited by Mary Sue McClain