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 its 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, you might feel like you’re going to die.
Tightness in the throat, chest, or stomach area.
Disassociating or disconnecting from yourself and your surroundings or leaving 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 of the jaw, stomach pain, digestive issues, and 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. You might feel like your thoughts are spiraling and are nearly impossible to manage. An anxiety attack is an intense form of anxiety, but it is milder than a panic attack, doesn’t come on as quickly, and is mostly connected to stress, overthinking, or worrying about something in the 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. Your heart will beat quickly and it’ll be difficult to breathe.
Genetics and Trauma
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.
Unresolved personal and intergenerational trauma stays active in the limbic system, the brain center that deals with memory, mood, pleasure, and emotions like anger and excitement. This unprocessed trauma can be triggered at any time and set off an alarm in your brain, causing anxiety or panic.
In this case, is important to work through personal and inherited trauma so you can create new neural pathways in the brain.
Read more: learn about intergenerational trauma and healing.
It is essential to assess your lifestyle to determine whether there is something in your routine or life that is causing anxiety. For example, stress, codependent relationships, major life transitions, and medical conditions can cause or contribute to feelings of anxiety. Being isolated or leading a sedentary lifestyle can also amplify symptoms of anxiety. For some, substances including caffeine and alcohol can trigger anxiety. And foods that cause inflammation in the gut can send an inflammatory signal to your brain, activating anxiety.
Explore more: learn about the relationship between the gut and brain, and how to improve your vagal tone.
Suppressed emotions, such as anger or sadness, can contribute to anxiety and panic, especially if these feelings are tied to trauma. Many people don't know how to tolerate the discomfort of feeling difficult emotions without numbing out or acting out. It can be overwhelming to face the past without getting flooded with painful feelings and thoughts. These suppressed emotions build up and can trigger anxiety and panic at unexpected times. Suppressed emotions can also lead to fits of uncontrolled anger and rage.
If you are dealing with anxiety triggered by trauma or suppressed emotions, it's important to work with a mental health professional to address the trauma and find non-destructive ways to release pent-up emotions.
Mindset and Thought Patterns
While negative thinking is a symptom of anxiety, your thoughts can also trigger anxiety and other feeling states. Most people engage in unhelpful automatic thought patterns, such as overthinking, rumination, worrying, or future thinking. These thought patterns can drastically change your mood and even your physiological state very quickly. Unconscious thoughts and negative limiting core beliefs can also contribute to your mindset and how your brain perceives the world. If you find yourself engaging in negative thinking patterns, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), mindfulness, and meditation can help you gain more command over your thoughts and emotions.
Read more: Explore tools and strategies to interrupt negative thinking patterns.
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 reconfiguring your priorities so you can enjoy more time and space to slow down or rest, exercise, and do things that are nourishing and soothing for your nervous system. Plan each day ahead of time and make sure to block off time to eat meals and practice self-care. Identify where you need to implement boundaries and commit to upholding your boundaries in your personal and professional life.
Spend More Time in Nature. Spending about 20 minutes in the forest or any quiet place in nature can reset your cortisol levels.
Mindfulness, Relaxation, and Stress Reduction Techniques. Help your mind and body relax by practicing present-moment awareness, meditation, breathwork, yoga, tai chi, journaling, drawing, or 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. With repetition and consistent practice, you can change your automatic response to stress or anxiety while reprogramming 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 so you can access the power in your body.
Work With a Counselor. Talking to a mental health professional can help you to heal your brain by addressing unresolved trauma and suppressed emotions. DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) can empower you to change your thought patterns and how you respond to stress and anxiety.
Work with a Medical Doctor. Discuss your symptoms with a doctor and if possible, request a full panel blood test. This will allow you to rule out or address any underlying physical conditions that might be contributing to anxiety.
Reduce Inflammation in the Body. Researchers have found that neurons and neurotransmitters in the gut can impact the brain, our mood, and our emotional states. Inflammatory foods and beverages, 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. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet mitigates inflammation in the gut, which reduces anxiety.
Chant or Sing to Improve Your Vagal Tone. Chanting, especially making a long "OM" or "VOOO" sound, stimulates your vagus nerve, which helps to increase feelings of safety and 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 or decrease the tension and stress in your body. You can improve your posture through stretching, foam rolling, or by 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. If you’re dealing with anxiety or panic, it’s important to get support and address the underlying cause while learning tools for managing anxiety so you can access sustainable relief. As you move through this healing process, the symptoms of anxiety and panic will become more manageable and the frequency and intensity of attacks will be significantly reduced.