Anxiety and Panic Attacks: Causes and Solutions Explained
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in the world. Anxiety is a relative of fear, and both occur in response to a threat. Fear causes the body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which increase your heart rate, and make you more alert and aware of your environment. These hormones are part of the fight or flight response that helps you to move quickly so you don’t get eaten by wild animals. At it’s best, fear is a survival mechanism that’s meant to protect you.
Yet most of the time we’re not in situations where there’s a legitimate threat to our survival. Oftentimes people get scared and anxious while they’re at home alone, at work, or in a social setting, where there’s no actual danger in sight. When this is the case, it means your nervous system is dysregulated (activated and misfiring), and you might be experiencing anxiety or panic.
While the terms anxiety, anxiety attack, and panic attack are often used interchangeably, they are quite different and it's important to know the difference.
When you experience anxiety, it usually comes on slowly and it might range from feeling mildly activated to moderately triggered. Anxiety is often connected to the stress of worrying or thinking about something in the future. Here is a list of the most common mental and physical symptoms of anxiety:
Racing or circular thoughts (this includes worrying, negative or catastrophic thinking, black and white thinking, rumination, obsession, paranoia).
Shortness of breath, hyperventilating or feeling like your breath is stuck somewhere in the body. During a panic attack, this can lead to feeling like you’re going to die.
Tightness in the throat, chest, or stomach area.
Disassociation, meaning that you check out or leave your body.
Feelings of dread.
Heart palpitations, excessive sweating, or feeling too hot or cold for no reason.
Difficulty falling or staying asleep.
Psychosomatic symptoms like tension in the muscles, back pain, stiffness in the joints, nausea, clenching the jaw, stomach pain, digestive issues, dizziness.
Compulsive behaviors such as cleaning, chain-smoking, excessive shopping, binge eating, or using substances.
When symptoms of anxiety are severe, intense, overwhelming, and difficult to control, you might be experiencing an anxiety attack. An anxiety attack is milder than a panic attack, doesn’t come on as quickly, and is mostly connected to stress, overthinking, or worrying about something in future that may or may not happen.
Panic tends to come on abruptly, and quickly sends your nervous system into a fight, flight, or freeze response. During a panic attack, you’ll feel afraid or threatened by something that’s happening in the moment. You might feel like you’re going crazy or about to die. The heart will beat quickly and it’ll be difficult to breathe.
Genetics, Trauma, and Lifestyle Factors in Anxiety and Panic
If anxiety or panic runs in your family, you might have a genetic predisposition, even if it skips a generation.
The field of epigenetics has revealed that trauma, stress, and environment can activate or inhibit the expression of certain genes.
For example, if you have a genetic predisposition for panic attacks, and you have unresolved trauma from your childhood, lead a stressful lifestyle, or drink a lot of alcohol, you might be more likely to struggle with panic. On the other hand, if anxiety attacks run in your family, but you’ve addressed past traumas through therapy, make healthy lifestyle choices like exercising and meditating regularly, and eat less inflammatory foods, you’re less likely to experience anxiety.
Unresolved trauma stays active in the limbic system, the brain center that deals with memory, mood, pleasure, and emotions like anger and excitement. Anything can potentially trigger the trauma and set off an alarm in your brain, causing anxiety or panic. Stress, codependent relationships, major life transitions, medical conditions, substances, and foods that cause inflammation in the gut can also activate anxiety.
From a somatic psychology perspective, suppressed emotions can contribute to anxiety and panic.
Many people don't know how to deal with their emotions in a healthy way, especially anger and sadness. Instead, people tend to live between the two extremes of acting out and suppression.
When you act out from a place of anger and yell at someone, it might feel like a release in the moment. However, it only feeds back into itself, reinforcing the stuckness of the emotion and causes harm to you and the person you yelled at. On the other end of the spectrum, people stuff their feelings away because they’re ashamed or confused about having them, or afraid of getting stuck or losing control. They try to ignore their emotions altogether, but unfortunately, these emotions build up over time and can lead to anxiety and depression.
In my private practice, I often notice anger and sadness hidden underneath depression, panic, and anxiety. Oftentimes these emotions are tied to traumatic content and negative core beliefs. In this case, I help people explore safe ways to resolve trauma and non-destructive ways to release pent-up emotions. Through this process, symptoms of anxiety, panic, and depression become more manageable and the frequency and intensity of attacks are significantly reduced.
How to Manage Anxiety and Panic
If you’re dealing with anxiety or panic, and not sure what to do, here are 12 actions you can take today:
Design a Less Stressful Lifestyle. This might include spending less time with people who stress you out, creating more space in your schedule to rest, and planning each day ahead of time so you’re not as reactive or overwhelmed at work. Keep in mind that multitasking is also very stressful and taxing on the body.
Spend More Time in Nature. About 20 minutes in the forest or any quiet place in nature can reset your cortisol levels.
Relaxation and Stress Reduction Techniques. Common relaxation techniques include meditation, yoga, tai chi, journaling, drawing, and reading inspirational literature. These practices can help you to interrupt the stress signal in the body and quiet the mind. This is especially helpful if you're dealing with negative or fear-based thinking. If you do these things consistently you can start to reprogram your brain.
Deep Breathing. Deep breathing practices will help you to gain more command over your thoughts, emotions, and mood. Shallow breathing can lead to hyperventilation. Practice taking deep, slow breaths into the diaphragm throughout the day.
Exercise Regularly. Practicing movement or exercise for at least 20 minutes per day can help you to release stress and pent-up emotions.
Grounding and Embodiment. Any physical activity that engages your leg muscles can help you to get out of your head and into your body.
Work With a Counselor. Talking to a mental health professional can help you to heal your brain over time by addressing unresolved trauma and trapped emotions.
See a Medical Doctor. This will allow you to rule out any physical conditions that might contribute to anxiety.
Practice Mindful Eating. Researchers have found that neurons and neurotransmitters in the gut and how they affect can impact the brain, our mood, and our emotional states. Inflammatory foods, such as alcohol, processed sugars, excessive dairy or white flour, can cause inflammation in the gut, which sends an inflammatory signal to the brain, triggering symptoms of anxiety, panic, and depression.
Chant or Sing to Improve Your Vagal Tone. Singing, and especially making a long "OM" sound stimulates your vagus nerve, which helps to increase your relaxation.
Take a Warm Bath or a Cold Shower. A warm bath with Epsom salts can relax your muscles and release stagnation to help you feel less tense. A cold shower can stimulate your vagus nerve and make you feel more relaxed afterward.
Improve Your Posture. Your posture can impact your breathing and increase tension and stress in the body. You can improve your posture through stretching, foam rolling, or practicing the Alexander Technique.
Things to Remember
Your body is intelligent and wants to keep you safe by making sure you’re alert to potential dangers in your environment. Yet, most people are on high alert, even when there’s no threat. This means the brain and nervous system are misfiring and you’re flooded with unnecessary stress hormones that cause more harm than good.
Ignoring anxiety doesn’t tend to make it go away, and it often gets worse over time. While medication might be a good solution for some people, most of the time it’s only going to cover up the symptoms and make you reliant on needing more of the drug. In this case, the anxiety never goes away, it’s just masked by the medicine. If you’re dealing with anxiety or panic, it’s important to learn how to address it beyond just taking a pill.