If you have a sudden feeling of fear that’s so intense, you might be afraid of losing control or dying, you might be having an anxiety attack.
According to the Anxiety and Depress Association of America, 40 million adults in the United States suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, which are often debilitating. But you don’t necessarily have to have an anxiety disorder to experience an anxiety attack.
Anxiety attacks are characterized by intense worry, fear and distress. You might hear the term used interchangeably with “panic attack,” but there are some subtle differences between anxiety and panic attacks, namely that panic attacks come on suddenly and are often triggered by specific phobias, while anxiety attacks come on gradually. Both types of attacks include physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, chest pain, shortness of breath, sweat, chills or hot flashes, trembling, dizziness, stomach troubles, and headaches. Panic attacks are often have more severe physical symptoms, are more intense overall, and come out of nowhere, whereas anxiety attacks gradually build over time.
If you are suffering from stress and anxiety and are prone to anxiety attacks, you might find yourself turning down career opportunities—even promotions—because you are afraid of an attack hitting at an inopportune time, such as while you are traveling or during an important meeting. Your anxiety may also be affecting your workplace performance in additional to your mental health and causing you to avoid certain situations, which may cost you a shot a promotion or heading up a big project. Depending on your specific phobias, and espcially if you have a social phobia or social anxiety disorder, you may avoid certain social situations, which can lead to feelings of isolation.
Common types of anxiety disorders
Not everyone who experiences anxiety attacks also has an anxiety disorder. It is important to recognize and understand common anxiety disorders, because anxiety and panic attacks can mimic more serious conditions, such as a heart attack. Your doctor can help you learn more about anxiety disorders and rule out more serious conditions.
• Panic disorder
Panic disorders affect 6 million or roughly 3 percent of the adult population, and women are twice as likely to be affected as men. It’s characterized by at least two attacks a month and fear of future attacks.
• Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Like a panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder is twice is likely to affect women and affects 8 million or 3 percent of adults. Those suffering from GAD are in a constant state of worry that is out of proportion to actual stressors.
• Specific phobia disorders
These disorders can take many forms, such as claustrophobia or social phobia, and is characterized by an irrational, and sometimes incapacitating fear of an object or situation.
• Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterized by repeated thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) such as concerns about cleanliness or repeated checking. OCD typically appears in people by age 19 and affects men and women equally.
• Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
In today’s high-pressure world, it’s not unusual for everyone to experience some stress or anxiety and depression now and then. However, you may be more prone to anxiety attacks if you are generally anxious, female, have another mental health disorder, or are experiencing a stressful situation outside of work, such as an illness or financial troubles.
Lifestyle can also increase your risk of experiencing anxiety attacks. If you are abusing drugs or alcohol, you’re more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. One too many cups of coffee can leave you feeling jittery, because caffeine is a stimulant that triggers your “fight or flight” response. Thyroid troubles and certain medications can also increase your anxiety.
Signs you’re headed for an anxiety attack at the office
An anxiety attack may only last a few minutes, or it could last up to an hour. They can be a scary experience, particularly if you’ve never had one before, and even more disruptive when they hit at the office while you’re trying to go about your day. The best defense is to know the signs you’re headed for an attack, so you can stop them before they start. Here are some signs that an attack may be coming.
1. You’re not sleeping well.
Whether your lack of sleep is caused by an underlying condition or hitting next on your Netflix queue one too many times, a lack of sleep can increase your anxiety levels. When you aren’t getting enough sleep, you are likely stressing that you aren’t sleeping, your body doesn’t have the chance to regulate your hormones overnight, and you’re experiencing increased levels of adrenaline to keep functioning, all of which can aggravate your anxiety levels.
2. You’re skipping the gym.
If you’re skipping your workouts, you might find yourself more on edge than usual. But after a long day at the office, going to the gym may be the last thing on your mind. Or, if you’re having trouble sleeping, getting up early probably isn’t high on your priority list either.
Still, you should make an effort to exercise, even for just a few minutes. Exercise increases your endorphin levels, helps you sleep, lowers stress, and improves your mood. It's a great natural treatment for anxiety and depression. Exercise can also act as meditation of sorts: The movement and focus on a single task give your brain a break from the day’s troubles.
3. You’re having problems at work.
Do you have an overbearing boss? Are you being harassed by a coworker? Are you struggling with a new assignment? While these things may resolve in a matter of weeks or months, when piled on top of your everyday responsibilities, it can be enough to make you dread getting out of bed to go to work every morning. This can also lead to missed promotions and other opportunities, which in turn leads to more stress.
4. You’re having problems at home.
Maybe you’re going through a rough divorce, you were just diagnosed with a chronic illness, or a family member is moving in with you, forcing you to take on additional caregiver responsibilities. Although we may try to check our personal lives at the door, we’re all human, and stress in our everyday lives can certainly impact our working lives.
5. You’re excessively worried...all the time.
One of the differences between panic attacks and anxiety attacks is that the anxiety attacks are caused by ongoing stress and worries. While it’s normal for everyone to get stressed now and then, sometimes we experience excessive worrying caused by either our natural tendencies or an unusual event. Excessive stress can be caused by a difficult boss, a new project, a promotion or any number of everyday, “normal” job activities, not to mention challenges in your personal life, such as a chronic illness, death of a family member, or another traumatic event. And if you find yourself worried all the time, it might be a sign of a larger problem.
6. You’re having stomach troubles.
Does the thought of standing up in front of a room to give a presentation make your stomach turn? Have you heard stories about athletes running to the bathroom before the big game? It’s normal if you feel a bit queasy before a big event, but chronic stress and anxiety might mean chronic stomach troubles. Stress has all kinds of effects on your digestive system, including acid reflux, indigestion, nausea, constipation and diarrhea. Stress can also aggravate existing conditions such as stomach ulcers, inflammatory bowel syndrome and celiac disease.
7. You’re experiencing other physical and emotional symptoms.
Anxiety sufferers experience a wide variety of symptoms, such as sweating, shaking, dizziness, sweating, sharking, racing heart, choking or chest discomfort, tingling, feelings of detachment, and fear of dying or going crazy. Everyone’s experience with anxiety is different, so you may experience all or only a few of these symptoms. Even if you’re experiencing these symptoms and you’re not stressed, it might be worth a trip to your doctor to rule out any other underlying causes—which can in turn bring you some peace of mind.
Preventing anxiety attacks
Once an anxiety attack has started, there isn’t much you can do to stop it other than removing yourself from the situation (if possible) and riding it out. However, there are steps you can take to prevent anxiety attacks before they start and reduce stress before things get out of hand. Make sure you’re getting enough sleeping, eating well, and prioritizing self-care activities such as hitting the gym, having dinner with a friend, reading your favorite book, or walking your dog.
If you start to notice you’re experiencing one or more of these signs on an ongoing basis, consider talking to a licensed professional; anxiety is highly treatable, but only about 37 percent of people struggling with anxiety receive treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy based on changing dysfunctional thought patterns and behaviors, can help you manage your anxiety disorder. Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, CBT can still help you learn how to manage your stress levels and help you avoid anxiety attacks altogether.
Samantha Smoak is a journalist turned PR professional based in Nashville, Tennessee. For sports jokes and dog pictures, follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @samanthaksmoak.