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What exactly is an Anxiety Attack?

by Ben Abbot

An anxiety attack is an episode of extreme fear or panic that typically lasts no more than 30 minutes. It occurs suddenly without any warning. What triggers an anxiety attack is sometimes obvious like being stuck in an elevator, being stuck in traffic and running late for an important meeting, or thinking about an exam you have to take in the near future. But sometimes these attacks are triggered out of the blue without any obvious reason, in which case even the person experiencing the attack, himself is not sure about what triggered his attack.  

People usually consider an anxiety attack to be the same as a panic attack, but there’s a slight difference between the two. Unlike a panic attack which occurs suddenly and subsides after a few minutes, symptoms of an anxiety attack gradually become more intense over minutes, hours, or days, and prevail for long periods. 

What happens during an anxiety attack? 

During an anxiety attack, a person experiences all or some of the following symptoms: 

  • Muscle tension  
  • Sleep disturbances  
  • Dizziness  
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Restlessness 
  • Irritability  
  • Mind going blank 
  • Concentration difficulties  

Symptoms can vary in intensity. These are disruptive but can be mild, moderate, or severe in nature. They impair one’s day-to-day functioning.  

How to deal with an anxiety attack? 

When one is experiencing an anxiety attack, he/she might not know what to do at that moment to calm himself/ herself down. Here are a few tips and tricks that you can practice when you have an anxiety attack. These anxiety exercises address your body’s stress responses such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and tense muscles, and help replace them with what your body feels when you’re in a relaxed state.  

Having an anxiety attack is a highly subjective experience. Some of the following exercises may give you more relief than others. It’s only when you practice these exercises yourself will make you aware of what does and does not help you ease your anxious state. 

Deep Breathing Exercise 

One of the most practiced exercises to help calm you down is the deep breathing exercise. During an anxiety attack try to look for the nearest quiet and comfortable place and sit down. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, filling up your lungs. Doing so, watch for the movement of your hands. The hand on your stomach should move up when you inhale while the hand on your chest should remain still. Stop and hold your breath for 3-5 seconds, and then slowly and gradually exhale through your mouth. The exhaling should be very gradual and not all at once. Practice the same process i.e. inhaling deeply through the nose, holding in, and exhaling gradually through the mouth, for at least 5 to 10 times until you start to feel relaxed. 

Muscle relaxation   

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is one of the systematic techniques that could be utilized to obtain a state of relaxation during an anxiety episode. 

This exercise is done by tightening and releasing each muscle group from face down to neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, abdomen, glutes, and legs. Tighten each muscle one by one while holding your breath. Count to ten then slowly release that muscle and let go of any tension. PMR helps you become more aware of how your physical stress might be contributing to your emotional state. By relaxing your body, you are able to let go of anxious thoughts and feelings. Practicing this exercise helps reduce physical problems too such as stomach aches, and headaches, as well as helped improves sleep. This technique can also be done in combination with deep breathing exercises to enhance the experience.  

Counting Numbers 

Counting numbers during an anxiety attack is a very simple yet effective way to reduce the symptoms and help you calm down quickly. When having an anxiety attack, close your eyes and start counting from 1-10 or even to a higher number like 20, 30, or 40. The motive is to keep counting until you start to feel your anxiety is subsiding and you are calming down. This practice is useful because it gives you something to focus on besides your anxiety, and takes your attention away from the things that are making you anxious and causing you to panic. 

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For people who do not find this counting technique useful, it is suggested that once you count forward to a certain number (say 1,2,3,…, 20.), start counting backward from that number (say 20, 19, 18,…, 1). Counting backward is useful for people who find forward counting easy and less attention-seeking task.  

It is an easy task to do when a person is in a crowded place or in a middle of a meeting or a speech where other methods like deep breathing and muscle relaxation can’t be practiced, or in a scenario where a person experiencing anxiety attack doesn’t want other people to know what he’s going through at that moment.  

Visualizing a desired scene 

Visualizing your happy place in your mind can be actually very calming while experiencing an anxiety attack. A happy place is any scene that makes a person happy. It can be an imaginary scene i.e. a scenario one finds desirable and wants to experience in life, or it can be a scene you have actually experienced in life that made you really happy, calm, and peaceful. It is done by closing your eyes and taking slow regular breaths. Visit your happy place in your mind. Focus on the details of the place, the things, and the people you see there. Focus on the sounds and sensations. Focus on your breathing. Stay in that place until you start feeling that your anxiety has lifted. 

For people undergoing the attack, it can be very difficult to think of a calming scene to imagine on the spot. So for that it is advised that they think of their ideal happy place beforehand so that they don’t have to go through the trouble of thinking of one during an ongoing attack.

This practice is highly useful as it helps replace the symptoms of an anxiety attack (panic, stress, increased heartbeat, and muscle tension) and replace them with the opposite feeling of lightheadedness, calmness, and peacefulness. Moreover visualizing is also easy to practice anytime regardless of where a person is and what he’s doing.  

Question yourself 

When you feel anxious that things are worse than they actually are, question yourself: “Who told you that?” typically you won’t have an answer and you’ll learn that it’s all in your head.  


 Anxiety intensifies when you replay negative past events/ mistakes or overthink future scenarios that may be distressing in nature. Mantras like “I am safe now”, “I am at peace with my past”, and “with each deep breath I become more at ease”, can help allow you to focus your attention on a single soothing phrase while providing some relief from negative intrusive thoughts. 

When experiencing an anxiety attack, people can feel very overwhelmed and overstimulated and so require immediate and effective ways to illuminate their symptoms and calm themselves down. Exercises like these are not only effective but also very easy to practice and can be done anytime and anywhere. But this does not mean that you solely rely on these practices, having frequent anxiety attacks is serious and requires professional therapy and medical help.  Medicines like Xanax and Zoloft can help ease anxiety symptoms but of course, they should only be taken through prescription. Moreover, a few changes in your lifestyle like limiting your caffeine intake, sleeping at least 8 hours a day, eating healthy, and exercising regularly can be very beneficial.

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