Understanding anxiety disorder: 3 simple steps to squashing those scary symptoms

The symptoms of a panic attack are frightening, frustrating and sometimes, funny.

If you are one of the millions who have experienced the merciless moments associated with panic and anxiety disorder, you know how hard it can be to separate the sane, rational thoughts from the catastrophic, somewhat crazy ones.

So how does one rationalize, and more importantly, live with and through, such an uncomfortable and unkind condition.

Anxiety-related symptoms fall on a broad spectrum, and often strike without warning. It’s a lot like walking down a dark street at night with the sensation that someone is lurking in the shadows. Your heart rate rises, your breath is shallow and fast. You don’t know it yet, but these two adrenaline-fueled responses are enough to trigger some concerning sensations like light-headedness, sweating and nausea.

But guess what? There is no crazy street walker wielding a knife, waiting to attack you. In fact, you’re not in an alley at all. You’re at a restaurant, with lifelong friends, in a super safe environment. And still, these symptoms strike. Symptoms, by the way, that according to WebMD, are very similar to a myriad of morbid illnesses. If you’re someone who spends sufficient time surfing the deep, dark, death diagnosing web - you know this all too well. We will address the fun life of a hypochondriac in a later piece.

So getting back to those scary symptoms. I’ve found that understanding what is happening to your brain and body, and how to break through that death grip, is almost more valuable than why. Why doesn’t make it go away quickly. That takes a longer look.

This article isn’t an archeological dig, designed to unearth and examine the psychological skeletons buried from years past. We aren’t going to relive that time something severe happened - though knowing triggers is always helpful in coping with anxiety disorder. Rather, this piece is for those who want a few tools to tackle panic when it attacks.

For starters, let’s look at the brain. It’s a beautiful, brilliant, baffling, bustling organ sitting on top of your body like a watchtower. It surveils for sources of stimulation - good and bad. And sometimes, that superb, sensation monitoring sharp shooter, misreads external signals and misfires. The reason for why this occurs is not my expertise. But what to do when this innocent blip of info goes on to create a crazy commotion over what’s truly just a common, perfectly safe wave of consciousness - that, well that I can try to help with.

Since it is tempting, and initially rational, to be concerned when you experience anxiety symptoms, you must make your first step a visit to your physician. This helps to rid your mind of worrisome medical conditions and negative thoughts like having a heart conditions, cancer, a stroke or that you are losing your mind. If you don’t feel confident with their assessment and want extra reassurance (and don’t mind coughing up another copay), get a second opinion. After two thumbs up, you should have peace of mind that you’re physically healthy.

Now this is the challenging part that will take daily practice. Once cleared by your doctor, you must acknowledge and understand that these symptoms are unpredictable and potentially lifelong. They will come and go. The good news is that they always leave. After all, they are an unwelcome guest. The scary and super frustrating part is the uncertainty around when they will rear their ugly head again. Often, the fear of this alone can set off a cycle of symptoms. But you can get ahead of it by knowing what your notable symptoms are and recognizing that stressful situations, like big life events (marriage, divorce, birth, death, moving, college, careers - you name it!), can trigger these uncomfortable manifestations. Understanding this is your key to surviving and thriving.

My 3 step system to conquering a panic attack helps, too:

  1. When a symptoms strikes, do NOT go on the internet to research your symptoms. This will only give fuel to your frenzied and frantic mind. Remember, you recently saw a physician (or 2) who cleared and confirmed that you are in good health. Phew, what a relief! Now it’s just mind over matter.

  2. Instead of drudging through the depths of death-related diagnoses, find your breath. You can always trust in this (unless you’re underwater, of course). Sometimes we are unaware at how shallow and superficially we are breathing. The nerves need calming breath to wash away worry, while the brain is centered by it. Inhale fully, filling the tummy. Hold for equal counts in and out. 3,4 seconds of breaths in and out is a good starter. Repeat as many times as necessary.

  3. Understand that your brain is simply having a miscommunication with your body. While uncomfortable, let it sort its self out. Rather than focusing on each insignificant symptom of this syndrome - stay with your breath. Whenever you give life to a sensation, whether that be a headache, stomach cramp, or anything negative in life in general, it grows. Do not feed it. This worry plant does not need to be watered, rather ripped from the root.

Anxiety disorder sucks. It can feel unfair, unsettling and uninvited in your life. You are stronger than your symptoms. Keep moving forward, focusing on the good and know that you’ve not alone.