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How to Control an Anxiety Attack

Imagine this: You are going about your day, minding your own business, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a surge of overwhelming panic washes over you.

Your heart races, your chest tightens, and it feels like the world is closing in. You are experiencing an anxiety attack — a distressing episode that can leave you feeling helpless and out of control.

Anxiety attacks can be distressing and frightening, especially if they happen in public. But with the right coping strategies and treatment, you can regain control and manage them.

In this article, we will answer some common questions about anxiety attacks, including:

WHAT IS AN ANXIETY ATTACK?

An anxiety attack is a sudden and intense episode of fear or nervousness that usually lasts for a few minutes but can sometimes last longer.

Unlike a panic attack, which can occur unexpectedly and abruptly, anxiety attacks usually arise in response to particular issues or concerns.

Physical symptoms vary based on the individual but typically include:

  • Chest pain, discomfort or tightness
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or rapid, irregular heart rate
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath, faster breathing, or hyperventilation
  • Sweating

An anxiety attack can also cause psychological symptoms, like:

  • Anger
  • Confusion
  • Dread
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear of losing control or dying
  • Feelings of unreality or detachment
  • Guilt
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Panic
  • Terror
  • Sadness
  • Shame

Anxiety attacks can vary in frequency, intensity, and duration. Some people may experience them only once or twice in their lifetime, while others may have them more often.

Specific situations or triggers, such as flying, public speaking, or social events, can also trigger anxiety attacks in some people.

WHY DO ANXIETY ATTACKS HAPPEN?

Anxiety attacks happen when the body’s natural fight-or-flight response is activated inappropriately or excessively.

The fight-or-flight response prepares the body to face or escape a perceived threat. This survival mechanism involves the release of hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.

These hormones increase the heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and muscle tension. They also decrease digestive and immune functions.

This response is useful and adaptive when encountering a real threat, like a wild animal or a fire, because it helps us react quickly and effectively. However, when the threat is imagined, exaggerated, or nonexistent, the fight-or-flight response becomes maladaptive and harmful, causing unnecessary anxiety or stress.

Many factors contribute to the occurrence of anxiety attacks, such as:

  • Genetics: Some people may inherit a tendency to be more sensitive or reactive to anxiety and stress. They may also have a lower threshold for triggering the fight-or-flight response.
  • Stressful life events: Some people experience stressful or traumatic events that can trigger or worsen anxiety, such as a job change, abuse, divorce, illness, loss, or violence.
  • Chronic health conditions: Some people may have medical conditions that can cause or mimic anxiety, such as asthma, diabetes, heart problems, hormonal imbalances, or thyroid disorders.
  • Neurochemical imbalances: Imbalances in brain chemicals, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, can contribute to the development of anxiety attacks.
  • Personality: Some people have personality traits that make them more prone to anxiety, such as being avoidant, a perfectionist, self-critical, or shy.
  • Substance use: Some people may use substances that can induce or exacerbate anxiety, such as alcohol, drugs, caffeine, or nicotine.

HOW CAN I CONTROL AN ANXIETY ATTACK?

Anxiety attacks can be scary and uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous or harmful. They will not cause you to have a heart attack, faint, suffocate, or die. They will not make you lose control or harm yourself and others. They will not last forever and will pass eventually. The key to controlling an anxiety attack is to calm yourself down and cope with the symptoms rather than fight or avoid them.

Here are five tips that can help you control an anxiety attack:

1. Breathe slowly and deeply.

Breathing is one of the most effective ways to regulate the fight-or-flight response and reduce anxiety.

When you are having an anxiety attack, you may tend to breathe rapidly and shallowly, which can worsen the symptoms, making you feel more anxious. To counteract this, try to breathe slowly and deeply, using your diaphragm rather than your chest.

Inhale through the nose for four seconds, hold your breath for two, and exhale through the mouth for six. Repeat this cycle until you feel more relaxed and in control.

2. Relax your muscles.

Another way to calm the fight-or-flight response and ease anxiety is to relax your muscles, which may be tense or tight during an anxiety attack.

You can use progressive muscle relaxation, which involves relaxing and tensing different muscle groups, starting from your feet and moving up to your face. Alternatively, you can focus on releasing any tension in your shoulders, neck, jaw, or other areas where you feel it.

You can also massage or stretch your muscles to help them relax.

3. Challenge your thoughts.

Anxiety attacks are often triggered or maintained by negative or irrational thoughts, such as “I’m going to die” or “I can’t handle this.”

These thoughts can fuel your fear and panic, making you feel more helpless or hopeless. To break this cycle, you need to challenge your thoughts and replace them with more realistic, positive ones, like:

  • “This is just an anxiety attack. It will pass soon.”
  • “I’m not in danger. I’m safe.”
  • “I can cope with this. I’ve done it before.”

You can use cognitive restructuring, which involves identifying, evaluating, and modifying your thoughts, using evidence, logic, and alternative perspectives.

4. Distract yourself.

Another way to cope with an anxiety attack is to distract yourself from the symptoms and focus on something else that is more pleasant or engaging.

You can use any activity that can capture your attention and interest, like:

  • Listening to music
  • Playing a game
  • Reading a book
  • Talking to a friend
  • Watching a video

You can also use a technique called grounding, which focuses on your senses and the present moment rather than your thoughts or feelings. For example, you can name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

5. Find support.

Having an anxiety attack can make you feel isolated and alone, but you don’t have to go through it by yourself.

Seek support from someone who can understand and help you, such as a family member, a friend, a therapist, or a crisis counsellor. Ask them to stay with you, talk to you, reassure you, or distract you until you feel better.

Join an online community or support group to share your experiences and learn from others.

WHAT ARE THE MOST USED TREATMENT OPTIONS FOR ANXIETY?

The most common treatment options for anxiety are medication and psychotherapy or a combination of both.

Medication

Your doctor can prescribe medications that can help reduce anxiety and prevent anxiety attacks.

Antidepressants

These are medications that can help regulate your brain’s neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, to improve your mood and reduce anxiety.

Examples of antidepressants commonly used for anxiety include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine, sertraline, and escitalopram: SSRIs increase the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and anxiety.
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) like duloxetine and venlafaxine: SNRIs increase the levels of both serotonin and norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter involved in regulating anxiety.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) like clomipramine and imipramine: In a comprehensive 12-month study on the effectiveness of clomipramine, the panic-free rates increased from 55% at three months to 72%.¹
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) like phenelzine and isocarboxazid: MAOIs prevent the breakdown of neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine and serotonin, to increase their levels in the brain.

Antihistamines

These are medications usually used to treat allergies, but they can also have a mild sedative effect that can help reduce anxiety.

Examples of antihistamines commonly used for anxiety include hydroxyzine and diphenhydramine. Hydroxyzine has shown promising results in treating generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), with reported improvements in 60% to 90% of patients

Benzodiazepines

These sedatives can help relax muscles, calm your mind, and improve sleep.

Examples of benzodiazepines commonly used for anxiety include alprazolam, diazepam, and lorazepam. Findings show that around 70% of patients will exhibit a positive response when administered up to 40 milligrams of diazepam or an equivalent dosage per day for a minimum of three to four weeks.¹

Beta-Blockers

These are medications that can help reduce symptoms of physical anxiety like increased heart rate, trembling, and sweating.

Examples of beta-blockers commonly used for anxiety include atenolol and propranolol.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy (or talk therapy) is another effective treatment for anxiety and panic attacks.

In 2021, the English National Health Service reported a 51.4% recovery rate for anxiety and depression among those who completed its Improving Access to Talking Therapies (IAPT) program.²

Talk therapies include:

  • Behavioural activation
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy
  • Counselling
  • Couples therapy
  • Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing
  • Guided self-help
  • Interpersonal therapy
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy

GOING BEYOND TRADITIONAL TREATMENTS

In addition to traditional psychotherapy methods, there are also alternative treatments for managing anxiety.

Ketamine-assisted healing and DTMS therapy are two examples of innovative treatment options.

Ketamine-Assisted Healing

Research has shown that ketamine is effective in treating social anxiety

During a ketamine-assisted healing session, you receive low doses of ketamine to induce a temporary altered state of consciousness. This state may allow you to gain insights, process emotions more deeply, and improve symptoms.

Deep TMS Therapy

DTMS therapy is a non-invasive procedure that involves using magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain.

The Food and Drug Administration approved DTMS for the treatment of:

  • Anxious depression
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Smoking cessation

During a DTMS session, a doctor places an electromagnetic coil on your head and delivers magnetic pulses to areas of the brain regulating mood. This can help regulate brain activity and reduce symptoms of anxiety.

Watch this video featuring Pierre, who shares his experience with DTMS therapy.

COMBINING TRADITIONAL THERAPY AND ALTERNATIVE TREATMENTS

While traditional therapy methods, such as talk therapy, are effective for many individuals with anxiety, some may benefit from a combination of conventional and alternative treatments.

By combining psychotherapy with innovative treatment options like ketamine-assisted healing or DTMS therapy, individuals may experience improved symptom relief and overall well-being.

READY TO TAKE CONTROL? WE CAN HELP.

Anxiety attacks and panic attacks can significantly impact your daily life, but there are effective treatment options available.

Remember, everyone’s journey with anxiety is unique, and finding the right treatment may take some time. However, the road is a lot easier to navigate with proper support and guidance from a mental health professional.

At All Points North, we offer a comprehensive treatment approach, which includes traditional and alternative therapies like ketamine-assisted healing or Deep TMS therapy. For more information, call 0203 984 7699 or complete our online contact form.

REFERENCES

  • Cassano GB, Baldini Rossi N, Pini S. Psychopharmacology of anxiety disorders. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2002 Sep;4(3):271-85. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2002.4.3/gcassano. PMID: 22033867; PMCID: PMC3181684, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181684.
  • “Record high patient numbers completing NHS treatment for common mental illness.” National Health Service, 25 November 2021, https://www.england.nhs.uk/2021/11/record-high-patient-numbers-completing-nhs-treatment-for-common-mental-illness.
  • Taylor JH, Landeros-Weisenberger A, Coughlin C, Mulqueen J, Johnson JA, Gabriel D, Reed MO, Jakubovski E, Bloch MH. Ketamine for Social Anxiety Disorder: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Crossover Trial. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2018 Jan;43(2):325-333. doi: 10.1038/npp.2017.194. Epub 2017 Aug 29. PMID: 28849779; PMCID: PMC5729569, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5729569.