Emotions are like the weather: they come, and then they go. Clear skies can turn into snowstorms and happy thoughts can turn into anxious ones.
The difference is that meteorologists can warn us about bad weather before it strikes. Can you imagine if it worked the same way with our feelings?
“Anxiety attack approaching.” “High levels of stress in the forecast tonight.” “90% chance of overwhelm at 8:00pm.” If only it were that easy! We can’t exactly predict when an anxiety attack will happen. What we can do, however, is learn how to cope during those moments when we feel like we’re stuck in the eye of the storm.
“Intense anxiety and emotions can be very challenging,” says Ramneet Lotay, a therapist at HealthOne. “But I like to remind my clients that it’s just an emotion, and all emotions eventually pass. When you learn strategies to help you cope with these intense feelings, it can make dealing with them feel significantly easier.”
We sat down with Ramneet to learn more about anxiety attacks and how to stop them.
What is an Anxiety Attack?
Let’s start off with the basics: what is anxiety? Anxiety is when our bodies and minds respond to a perceived threat. It’s normal to feel anxious from time to time, like before an exciting event or taking an exam at school. But in cases like these, your anxious thoughts and feelings subside after some time.
In comparison, someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder will experience anxiety to the point that it negatively affects their quality of life. It might interfere with their sleep, social functioning, relationships, or career. The DSM-5 recognizes a number of anxiety disorders including Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and many more. Although it’s possible for anyone to experience an anxiety attack, Ramneet shares that it’s more likely to happen if you suffer from an anxiety disorder.
“An anxiety attack — or basically intense anxiety — usually builds up gradually,” she says. “There can be various triggers like giving a presentation at work or the thought of getting on a plane when travelling.”
An anxiety attack is usually related to a specific fear or worry about the future. Some examples of negative thought patterns that can cause an anxiety attack include:
- Catastrophizing. This is when you assume the worst about a situation.
- Fortune telling. This is when you overthink events that will happen in the future.
- Mental filtering. This is when you only focus on the negative side of situations.
You might obsess over these thoughts and feel like your mind is going a million miles a minute. “It can be really overwhelming – almost like your mind is a hamster wheel going really fast,” Ramneet says.
What Does an Anxiety Attack Feel Like?
As we mentioned, an anxiety attack is usually triggered by something specific. It can include a combination of intense emotional and physical symptoms, such as:
- Feelings of worry, restlessness, and fear
- A faster heartbeat and shortened breath
- Tightness/pain in the throat or chest
- Sweating, chills, or hot flashes
- Shaking, trembling, or numbness
- Stomach pain/nausea
The experience of intense anxiety can vary from person to person. You might experience all, or only a few, of these symptoms during an anxiety attack.
How Long Do Anxiety Attacks Last?
“Generally, an anxiety attack can last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes,” Ramneet explains. “They can even last a few hours, but it depends on the person.”
If you wake up feeling anxious and continue to feel this way throughout the day, for example, there’s a longer amount of time for your emotional and physical symptoms to snowball. Is an anxiety attack the same thing as a panic attack, though? Professionals identify the two as different mental health challenges. Let’s take a look at the main differences between them.
Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attack
Panic attacks and anxiety attacks share similarities but are ultimately two different things. The main differences are:
- How quickly it happens. According to Ramneet, panic attacks come up without warning and are a lot more sudden. In comparison, an anxiety attack develops gradually over time.
- Why it happens. Panic attacks often happen without an identifiable trigger or reason. In comparison, anxiety attacks usually happen in response to a specific event in the future.
- Severity of symptoms. The physical symptoms of a panic attack are much more intense. Another difference is that someone experiencing a panic attack will normally feel intense fear, fear of dying, or a sense of detachment. These are not typical symptoms of an anxiety attack.
Both of these experiences can be troubling and difficult to deal with. If you suffer from frequent panic attacks, you should consider visiting a mental health professional so you can receive professional help. You should also consider therapy if you suffer from intense bouts of anxiety — but in the meantime, you can learn strategies to help you cope in the future.
We asked Ramneet for her top recommendations on how to stop an anxiety attack.
How to Stop an Anxiety Attack
Does it feel like your mind is going a million miles a minute? These helpful tools and strategies from Ramneet can help.
Her first recommendation is a basic one, but it works. “The most important step is to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing,” she says. It might sound easy, but these techniques make it especially effective.
“The steps to breathing correctly are to breathe in slowly through your nose and fill up your stomach with air like you’re filling up a balloon. Hold it for a couple of seconds, then breathe slowly out of your mouth like you’re blowing out candles on a cake,” she explains.
As soon as you find your thoughts racing or your heartbeat getting quick, try breathing this way for five minutes to try and relax your body and mind.
“I always remind my clients that anxiety is an intense emotion, but just like every emotion, it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, it will pass.”
Another technique Ramneet recommends for dealing with anxiety attacks is a physical grounding exercise. “This one really helps because it allows you to stay present in the moment. When we’re anxious, we’re not present because we’re either stuck in the past or worried about the future.”
Look around the room/space you’re in and try to identify:
- 5 things you can see.
- 4 things you can touch.
- 3 things you can hear.
- 2 things you can smell/taste.
- 1 positive thing you can say about yourself.
Using your senses can be incredibly useful for getting out of your head and focusing on your reality. Let’s say you start to feel symptoms of an anxiety attack before an important Zoom meeting with your coworkers. This exercise might look like this:
- I see birds flying outside, my laptop, a mug of coffee, my agenda, and my water bottle.
- I can feel the chair I’m sitting on, the sweater I’m wearing, my laptop keys under my fingers, and my phone.
- I can hear cars honking outside, birds chirping, and a Spotify playlist.
- I can taste coffee and smell the candle I have burning.
- I’m doing my best and I’m proud of myself.
The more you practice these strategies, the more intuitive they’ll become. With the right tools in your toolkit, you’ll be able to stop – or reduce – an anxiety attack when it happens.
Therapy for Anxiety Attacks
As important as it is to know strategies to cope, you should always consider visiting a professional if you deal with anxiety. Small amounts of anxiety are normal – and even helpful – in our lives. But when it becomes more frequent and interferes with your life, that’s where a therapist can come into play.
“Therapy can be beneficial because it can teach you healthy coping mechanisms and strategies to manage your anxiety,” Ramneet shares. “We’re not trying to get rid of your anxiety, we’re just trying to manage it. CBT can be really effective in helping people with anxiety. It challenges unhealthy thinking patterns and helps people find healthier ways to think about situations.”
CBT is a common form of talk therapy used by psychotherapists and social workers alike. We’ve written additional posts about CBT including what it is, mental health conditions it can treat, and how it can help you deal with stress and anxiety.
Therapy is also a great option because many clients find it beneficial to speak with a trusted individual about their struggles. Talking to a friend or family member can certainly help, but a third party is also a valuable resource to have. They can provide objective opinions about your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with the ultimate goal of helping you improve your mental health.
“I use a very strengths-based approach while helping clients so they can recognize what they’re doing well,” Ramneet adds. “We often forget about the positive and focus on the negative. But it’s so important to recognize our strengths, good qualities, and challenges we’ve overcome!”
Need a Therapist in Toronto?
If you suffer from intense anxiety or anxiety attacks, you might be hesitant to reach out and get help. But for many people, therapy is the turning point that allows them to take control of their life again.
A therapist will provide you with one-on-one counselling to understand the struggles you’re going through. They’ll listen, support you, and recommend strategies you can implement outside of the therapy room. At HealthOne, our therapists offer counselling both in-person and virtually so you can speak with a therapist from the comfort of home.
Dealing with difficult emotions can be troubling, but just like the weather, they always pass. With the right tools in your toolkit, you can prepare yourself for even the scariest of storms. Some tools can be self-taught, like the strategies outlined in this blog post. Others can come from a trusted professional like Ramneet Lotay, our therapist in Toronto.
We hope these strategies are helpful and support you in living an inspired life. Click here to book a 15-minute Meet & Greet appointment with Ramneet.
One life. Live Inspired.