Do you ever experience unnecessary fears with a racing heartbeat and/or difficult breathing? Do you imagine that something catastrophic will happen, or have scary thoughts about having a seizure or a heart attack? Are you often worried about your own or a loved one’s death? Do you ever feel an impending sense of doom?
Do you spiral into a panic whenever you are faced with a new problem or situation? Are you afraid you are going crazy? Are you excessively nervous at times, so much that you have difficulty concentrating or have stomach problems, dizziness, or uncontrollable sweating? If so, it is likely that you are suffering from an anxiety disorder and are experiencing “anxiety attacks.”
All people experience fear and anxiety. Fear is an emotional physiologic and behavioral response to a recognized external threat. Anxiety is an unpleasant emotional state that has a less clear source. As such, anxiety indicates the presence of psychological conflict.
Every person has a personal threshold for what he or she can handle in a given situation. Some people have a lower threshold due to their genetic makeup or past experiences. If pushed past this threshold by events, these people feel stressed, even overwhelmed, and can easily have anxiety attacks.
When anxiety gets out of control
It could be that you are one among the many who suffer from “anxiety attacks.” There are many possible reasons you have them. An anxiety attack is your response to stress, such as the breakup of an important relationship, or exposure to a life-threatening disaster, or even a kind of lifestyle one leads or is forced to lead. It can take some time for an anxiety disorder to develop. It often presents none, or very few, symptoms until the disorder has developed fully.
Effects of anxiety attacks
Anxiety is scientifically known as the “fight or flight response.” The primary purpose of this response is to activate the organism and protect it from expected harm, whether it is real or imaginary. A number of physical, behavioral, and mental changes can be experienced with this response during anxiety attacks.
When some sort of danger is perceived or anticipated, the brain sends messages to your autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two subsections or branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is the ‘fight or flight system” which releases energy and gets the body “primed” for action, while the parasympathetic nervous system is the restoring system, which returns the body to a normal state.
Activity in the sympathetic nervous system produces an increase in heart rate and the strength of the heartbeat. This is vital to preparation for activity since it helps speed up the blood flow, thus improving delivery of oxygen to the tissues and removal of waste products from the tissues.
In addition to increased activity in the heart, there is also a change in the blood flow. The blood is moved to the large muscles such as in the thighs and biceps, which help the body prepare for action.
The fight or flight response is associated with an increase in the speed and depth of breathing. This has obvious importance for the defense of the organism since the tissues need to get more oxygen in order to prepare for action.
The feelings produced by this increase in breathing, however, can include breathlessness, choking, or a smothering feeling, and even pains or tightness in the chest.
A side effect of increased breathing, especially if no actual activity occurs, is that blood supply to the head is actually decreased. While this is only a small amount and is not dangerous, it produces a collection of unpleasant symptoms including dizziness, blurred vision, and confusion.
Activation of the fight or flight response produces an increase in sweating. This has important adaptive functions, such as making the skin more slippery so that it is harder to grab, and cooling the body to stop it from overheating.
Other physical effects of anxiety attacks
There is a decrease in salivation, resulting in a dry mouth. Decreased activity in the digestive system usually occurs, which often produces nausea, and sometimes constipation.
Many of the muscle groups tense up in preparation for fight or flight, and this results in subjective feelings of tension, sometimes extending to actual aches and pains, as well as trembling and shaking.
The fight or flight response prepares the body for action – either to attack or to run. When this is not possible (due to social constraints), the urges will often be shown through such behaviors as tension, shivering, improper speech, foot tapping, pacing, or snapping at people. Overall, the feelings produced are those of being trapped and needing to escape.
The number one effect of the fight or flight response is to alert the organism to the possible existence of danger. Thus, one of the major effects is an immediate and automatic shift in attention to search the surroundings for potential threat. For this reason, it becomes difficult for the person to concentrate on other tasks when he/she is experiencing an anxiety attack.
Management of anxiety
There are several different treatment options for those suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. Alternative medicine, mental health therapy, and prescription medications all offer solutions to help manage anxiety and make life easier for those who are struggling. Diet, exercise, yoga, mediation, and relaxation techniques also can play a role in anxiety management and recovery.