Anxiety attacks: The lowdown

Either you’ve had them or you haven’t. For the readers who’ve never experienced an anxiety attack before, I’m gunna be sharing what they are, why they happen and how they make me feel. For readers who have experienced them, I’ll be explaining what I do to help my silly panicky brain when it glitches.

“Panic attacks involve sudden feelings of terror that strike without warning. These episodes can occur at any time, even during sleep. People experiencing a panic attack may believe they are having a heart attack or they are dying or going crazy. The fear and terror that a person experiences during a panic attack are not in proportion to the true situation and may be unrelated to what is happening around them. Most people with panic attacks experience several of the following symptoms: racing heart, feeling faint, tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers, a sense of terror or impending doom, feeling sweaty or having chills, chest pains, breathing difficulties and feeling a loss of control”

What do anxiety attacks feel like?

Anxiety attacks are unique to each individual- like freckles but a bit less fun. For me personally, anxiety attacks come second only to migraines in terms of intolerability (is that a word? it is now.)

They manifest very suddenly, and the first symptom for me is usually a feeling of weakness or shakiness. I’ve lost grip on things I’ve been holding in my hand before. This is usually followed by profuse sweating on my face (hide your boners), and feeling like I’m unbearably hot and impossibly cold at the same time. I then become nauseous and I get baggy mouth (this is a term I’ve coined for that gross saliva feeling when you’re about to vomit.)

After the nausea follows the numbness. I always find this part fascinating afterwards because I’m all “HOW? WHY?”. The numbness usually begins as tingling in my fingertips and lips, then it quickly shifts into complete numbness in my hands, forearms and face. If the attack is particularly bad, I’m completely incapable of speech and my lips turn pale and blue.

Alongside these physical symptoms, an acute sense of dread sits unmercifully in my chest. It feels like I’m gunna die and it’s like logic completely deserts my body. It’s hard to explain the dread to someone who hasn’t felt it, but it sort of feels like something awful is unequivocally about to happen, but I just don’t know what it is yet. I’ve had anxiety attacks so unbearable that in that moment, I’ve thought to myself that I’d rather be dead than have to go through another minute of it.

Why do they happen?

The really shit thing thing about anxiety attacks is the fact that they can strike at any moment, with no warning, and in situations that you wouldn’t necessarily expect an anxiety attack to happen. I’ve had ones with an obvious trigger like when my dad (bigup daddio) told me that my sister was dead, or during arguments, but I also have these seemingly random ones that just BLAUW me in the face without warning. (Make sure you physically act out the BLAUW please). I went through a period of having quite a lot when I was studying for my a-levels a few years ago. I assume they were passively triggered by my neurotic exam stress.

Experts and doctors aren’t entirely certain what exactly causes anxiety attacks, but they think that a genetic predisposition to stress might be a prevalent factor.

It has also been thrown onto the table that it could be a useless reaction leftover from neanderthals which natural selection hasn’t worked its magic on yet. Whilst we don’t have the imminent dangers that our ancestors did, we absofacto do still have the danger response- it’s just that instead of running from a predator, we’re running from work deadlines and our own existential terror.

What is happening in your body during an anxiety attack?

Once the brain has been notified that there is a panic trigger, it sends a signal to the amygdala, which inspects the perceived threat and if it perceives it as real, it notifies the hypothalamus. (Can we just universally blame our dramatic-ass faulty-ass amygdalae for anxiety attacks?!)

The hypothalamus then triggers the sympathetic nervous system to produce catecholamines from the adrenal glands; adrenalin and noradrenaline are released swiftly into our bloodstream. We have now entered fight-or-flight. *Welcome, friends.*

Fight-or-flight is basically our body going into survival mode – readying us for rapid removal from a dangerous situation. Symptoms of fight-or-flight include digestive evacuation (the fucking worst), sweating, increased heart rate, dilated pupils (apparently this is to help us see the perceived threat), and increased breathing rate so that we can send more oxygen to our muscles for imminent physical exertion.

What I do to ease an anxiety attack

I’ve not personally worked out a way to stop an anxiety attack in its tracks (hmu if you have). Once it begins, I just have to ride the wave. (I’ve just realised that my anxiety attacks feel exactly the same as when I whitey lol). I have however worked out some coping techniques to try to cut down the length of each attack.

Firstly, I seek out a safe human to lie beside me. This person doesn’t even need to say anything- in fact, it’s better if they don’t. I immediately remove myself from situations which might be noisy or busy because too many external stimuli can worsen or elongate the anxiety attack. In terms of the aforementioned neanderthal theory, this coping strategy reminds me of when dogs sleep especially soundly next to you, because they trust that you’re the designated lookout.

When I’ve had anxiety attacks around my sister, she makes me a hot chocolate because I’ve found that utilising taste is quite a good grounding technique for me (aslong as Ye Ol’ Evacuation response isn’t in full swang).

This next part is actually a secret that I’m about to share with ONLY you so shhh. When I’m mid-anxiety attacks, I put on this specific whale sounds album that I love, or this one particular album compiled of Chinese relaxation music (it’s the gongs for me bro). These two albums have actually managed to pull me out of some of the worst anxiety attacks.

As a last resort, I use valium.

What can you do to help someone who is having an anxiety attack?

Again, everybody is different in terms of attacks, and so what one needs might differ between individuals. In terms of my own experience:

  1. Let them know you’re there if you need them, but give them space. Don’t touch them unless they ask you to.
  2. Don’t panic. Panicking will just feed their stress response, so even if you feel scared, try your best not to show it.
  3. Reassure them. If they seem okay with you talking to them, softly tell them that they’re having an anxiety attack and that it will pass. I’ve found it helpful when people say things like “this is temporary” and “you’re in a safe place- nothing bad is going to happen”.
  4. Make sure you have food on standby ready for when they’ve recovered. For me, carbs usually sort me the fuck out after an anxiety attack, but I’m just generally a sucker for carbs. Mmmmm. Carbs.

Whether you suffer with anxiety attacks or not, I really hope this post has been informative in terms of how to cope with them, or how to help somebody else.

Thankyou for reading and hit me up with helpful suggestions or tips on how you deal with anxiety attacks!

Wear ya mask. Wash ya hands. Reassure your amygdala. x

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