It could be coming face to face with a big cat poised ready to pounce, or waiting in a claustrophobic room before an important interview. Your body is adapted to respond to stressful situations.
When you perceive stress or danger, your fight-or-flight response kicks into gear.1 Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol rush into your blood, triggering changes throughout your body. You start to breathe faster, your heart rate speeds up, and your muscles become tense. Your body prepares to fight or escape. Unfortunately, the fight-or-flight response can be triggered when you don't need to fight or flee – like in the interview waiting room. That's when anxiety creeps in.
Anxiety is a natural part of life, and it's something we all experience now and again. But people respond to situations differently. Something that makes you feel anxious might not affect someone else the same way. For some people, anxiety can make dealing with day-to-day life complicated.
Let's take a look at what happens when you feel anxious, how you can manage anxiety attacks in the moment, and what you can do to prevent anxiety in the long term.
What happens when you feel anxious?
Anxiety is an emotional stress response. It can make you feel tense, frightened, and distracted. But it is often also accompanied by unpleasant physical symptoms. Some common ones include:
- Chest pains
- Upset stomach
- Numbness/tingling sensations
These feelings can be concerning, increasing feelings of anxiety. This can create a vicious cycle of unpleasant feelings that can end in a panic attack.
People who struggle with anxiety disorders can go into fight or flight without warning or in response to everyday situations. These anxiety attacks can be powerful and last a long time. People who experience them regularly may start to avoid certain places or social situations. If anxiety regularly impacts your life, book an appointment with your doctor.
How can you manage anxiety attacks?
The key to managing anxiety attacks is recognizing the early signs and breaking the vicious cycle. Pay attention to your breathing and heart rate or any unusual feelings of worry.
If you start to feel anxiety creeping in, box breathing is a straightforward technique that might help. Here's how it works:
- Keep your hands relaxed in your lap and sit up straight. Focus on your breathing throughout the practice. Keep it gentle and controlled.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth until all the air has left your lungs.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose as you count to four in your head. Allow the air to fill every part of your lungs down into the abdomen.
- Hold your breath as you count to four.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth as you count to four, breathing out all of the air in your lungs.
- Hold your breath for another count of four, and then repeat the process.
Box breathing may play a role in regulating your autonomic nervous system, helping you feel calm.2 Why not give it a try?
How can you manage anxiety in the long term?
If you struggle with anxiety, there are things you can do to help manage in the long term. The most important thing is trying to get to the bottom of the problem. Talking to a trusted friend or family member can be reassuring, but speaking to a doctor or psychologist is your best bet. A professional can help you go beyond talking about problems to understand the link between your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical symptoms. They can help you find strategies that fix the root cause.
Healthy life choices go a long way to reducing anxiety. Cutting down on alcohol and caffeine can help, and good sleep works wonders. Find what helps you relax and nurture your mental and emotional health. For some people, it's walking in nature; for others, it might be mindfulness or music. Make time for yourself. It'll pay off.
With a little patience and self-care, you can manage your anxiety, so it doesn't take over your life.
Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., et al. “Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management”. Harvard Review of Psychiatry 23, 263–287 (2015).
Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., et al. “How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing”. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 12, 353 (2018).