Anxiety attacks come in all different shapes and sizes. No one person experiences an attack the same way. There are a wide variety of symptoms to keep an eye out for. In order to break down some of the confusion I’ve listed three different anxiety attacks I face, along with a general description of each experience.
The fight-flight-freeze (or alternatively, simply the fight-or-flight) reflex is activated when our minds sense danger. Our bodies physically prepare for it. However, when living with an anxiety disorder, this reflex gets triggered when no actual danger is present, making the body’s reactions unpleasant rather than helpful. This is the reflex behind most anxiety attacks. Our mind and body feel that we are in danger, even if we are perfectly safe. My anxiety attacks follow the fight-flight-freeze model differently, depending on the situation.
When my anxiety is triggered by a person, particularly a specific not-so-nice remark they make, I find that the “fight” reflex tends to take over. I do whatever I can to ease my anxiety at the time. I yell and scream and hurl insults just to get the other person to stop hurting me. Of course, this tends to lead to a nasty fall out. I always apologize for the things I said when my mind went out of control, but the damage is done. For me, these are the worst type of anxiety attacks.
The most common type of anxiety attack I feel is when my “flight” reflex is triggered. If a certain situation is causing me anxiety, my brain becomes obsessed with getting out of the situation. All I can focus on is getting away. I may need to leave the room and often use the excuse of needing a bathroom break. Alternatively, this can make me avoid a situation entirely. Sometimes, the anxiety leading up to an event is so bad that I can’t go at all.
In my experience, the “freeze” anxiety attack is the most intense one. In the heat of a very anxious moment, my body shuts down. My mind screams at me to move, but my muscles don’t work. I may have a blank facial expression and stare down to avoid all eye contact. My face grows hot with embarrassment. Eventually, the “flight” instinct will take over after enough adrenaline has been pumped through my body, and I will flee the situation.
Anxiety is a difficult disorder to live with. Oftentimes, in the midst of an attack, I will be unable to communicate what it is I need. To calm me down, it would be best to ask simple questions that can be answered non-verbally. And if you’ve ever helped me through one of these attacks, I appreciate you more than you’ll ever know.
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1. A convenient excuse to get out of something I don’t want to do: Now I probably won’t tell you I’m having panic attacks or that I’m too scared to do whatever it is. I will use another excuse, but people who know me will know the truth. If I didn’t have anxiety, I’d be so happy. But I do, and it’s limiting. There’s only so much anxiety one person can handle before they become way over-stimulated and stressed out and end up with panic attacks. Pushing the limits can be beneficial, but it needs to be on our terms, in a safe environment, with people who will be supportive. Knowing your limits is important — you wouldn’t push yourself to the point of breaking a bone or collapsing, why push to the point of panic?
2. Me being dramatic and looking for attention: I hide my panic attacks very well, so nobody has ever seen me have one. This means people may think that I’m making up having panic attacks, or looking for attention by claiming to have anxiety. They may think I’m looking for pity or I’m “acting out” by saying I have anxiety; people are often annoyed when others outwardly show constant “issues” including mental health problems like anxiety. The reality is, I do have severe anxiety, and I will try to hide it as best I can so that people don’t think I’m looking for attention or being annoying, but sometimes I can’t hide it.
3. The cause of all of my problems. I know anxiety has very many physical manifestations. It can cause so many issues. However, it is not the only cause for most people’s illness/disability. People, most often women, sometimes get denied the appropriate medical care they need because doctors will brush off symptoms of serious diseases as anxiety. In fact, I know people who have genetic conditions that cause severe pain and heart conditions who have been placed in a psych ward because it’s been labeled “anxiety.” Later on down the road, a doctor actually looked at them and realized that they’ve been having problems related to a severe physical condition all along; sometimes this causes irreversible damage.
Imagine you broke your arm, and you know you broke it, but everybody around you thinks that when you say you’re in pain you’re just looking for attention or that your pain isn’t as bad as you say it is. You ask for an x-ray to try to justify yourself, but they tell you to stop being “such a girl” and to “suck it up” and just handle the pain because it’s “not that bad.” First, your arm doesn’t get treated so you now have permanent damage; second, you start to doubt yourself and consider whether or not these people are right — they’re medical professionals after all, they should know what’s wrong. And lastly, you get some medications shoved at you, or if you really push that you’re in pain you get sent to a psychiatric hospital. Congrats, by the way, because now you have a diagnosis of anxiety/depression on your chart, which means that any time you see a doctor from now on? They will assume that whatever you say is wrong is actually just a manifestation of a mental illness.
4. Something that I can just turn off: There’s often not a quick fix when I’m feeling anxious. Medication and therapy can certainly help, but the attempts to try to keep us positive, or to not think about whatever is it that’s causing anxiety, and the well meaning, “Oh don’t worry about that!” are not helpful. Pushing the anxious thoughts away often makes them worse, and you can’t just say to stop worrying and assume that it’s going to work. It doesn’t work like that.
5. Logical: You can’t talk me out of being anxious, you often can’t talk me down from panic. You can’t reason with anxiety, reason and logic are not always the cure. The worst part of it is that we know that it’s not logical, we know we shouldn’t be worried about X or Y, we know we shouldn’t be having these intrusive thoughts, but we cannot help it.
6. A joke: My anxiety is not something I should be teased over, it is not funny. Anxiety affects my self-esteem already, but making fun of me for it? That is incredibly unsupportive and cruel. I already know that it’s silly (see “logical”), I’m already embarrassed that it’s not under my control, and making fun of me, or even just the fear itself, is really hurtful. I don’t need you to coddle me, I’m not asking for you to talk me through whatever it is, but I am saying no need to tease me about it.
What my anxiety is:
1. Illogical: What you’d think would be anxiety inducing is not actually what causes me anxiety, and the opposite, things that you’d think are silly are the things that make me anxious. Heights, public speaking, spiders, huge exams, going to the doctor — all things that some people are afraid of, but don’t bother me. Frogs, trying new foods, being home alone, staying away from home overnight (only overnight, not being away from home during the day), any type of social setting (even one that I’ve been in countless times before) are all things that cause me significant anxiety
2. Impactful: It affects the way that I eat, sleep, exercise, socialize, learn, literally everything I do is affected in some way by my anxiety. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that I literally will have anxiety about anxiety. No joke. For a while I was afraid to go to class because I had a panic attack in that class and I was scared it would happen again. I have anxiety now about the fact that certain situations may make me anxious, which prevents me from fully doing everything that I want to be able to do.
3. Frustrating: I honestly I hate it. I know some anxiety is OK, it’s healthy, but the constant worrying, intrusive thoughts and random panicking are not healthy for me, and it puts stress on my body. I have way too much cortisol in my body, which affects my weight, which subsequently affects my self-esteem.
4. A real condition: Medications are not happy pills, they do not change our personalities (usually); most of the time they’re things that take weeks, months to build up in our system for us to even notice effects. Side effects can be scary, and can affect self-esteem. Plus the stigma of medication for mental illness also can affect how we see ourselves. Therapy helps, exercise helps, eating right helps, but that isn’t always enough.
5. Scary: Ironic, anxiety is scary… but panic attacks are terrifying, and so are the intrusive thoughts. Panic attacks literally make you feel like you’re dying. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking I was dying when I was in grade school. I never told anybody, but when I started having panic attacks again in college it was the same, I thought I was having a heart attack. The intrusive thoughts are also incredibly scary. I know that I shouldn’t be thinking these things, I know that I don’t believe what my brain is saying, but it’s in my head, and it makes me feel like I’m going to end up dissociating and doing things I don’t want to do, that I’m going to lost control over my mind and body. Now that is a terrifying feeling.
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This piece was written by Adelaide Maria, a Thought Catalog contributor.
I have seen a good number of articles on Thought Catalog about living with anxiety and what people should know about it, but I wanted to shed some light on romantic relationships where one partner has anxiety. The struggle of having anxiety and being in love is vastly underrated. Here are some pro-tips for those of you who love someone or are falling for someone who has anxiety:
1. If you’re going to go to battle, know what you’re fighting against.
Anxiety is a battle between your mind and your mind, literally. And sometimes the battle can get heinous, especially when it steps outside of your mind and into your body as a panic attack. Anxiety and panic attacks can get better with time, but it is a condition that your partner lives with. Loving someone with anxiety can be difficult. You need to look within yourself.
2. Sometimes there is nothing you can do, and you have to accept this.
Once a panic attack begins, there is nothing you can do to stop it. It has to run its course. With anxiety, there are ways to stop it, but again, sometimes your partner just has a bad day and can’t reach their methods and thought-stopping processes in time. I would encourage you to be supportive, patient and loving during these episodes. Often times, people with anxiety can recognize when their thoughts are going dark, but at the same time, they may not be able to pull themselves out of it before the point of no return. Do not become frustrated because you cannot help. You help us the most by just being there.
3. Learn everything you can about your partner’s condition.
I cannot emphasize this enough. You will have a difficult time communicating with your partner if you cannot understand what anxiety is or what it feels like. Look up people talking about it, for example. Read everything you can about the condition. And even so, some people end up in counseling themselves to try to understand how to help themselves deal with their partner’s anxiety. If you make the effort to understand, your partner will appreciate it more than you know.
4. The worst thing you can do is shame us about our anxiety.
There isn’t a more horrible feeling in the world than someone telling us to “just get over it” or to “just relax.” These statements show a blatant misunderstanding of the nature of anxiety. Believe me, if it was that simple, we would have done it already. We know our anxiety makes everyone around us feel upset or frustrated about it, but if we could help it, we would.
5. We might already feel like a burden.
This is not to say that you can never express frustration or anger about your partner’s anxiety, but there is a way to say it nicely and in as much of a loving way as possible. If you say it in a negative way, then you’ve triggered or increased the ever-present worries. Sometimes, in the moment, things slip out or aren’t meant to be said. But these are extremely damaging to us, like getting kicked when you’re down. If you want to speak about it, be as gentle as you can. And no, tough love doesn’t feel like love to us.
6. Having a backup plan will make your partner feel a little easier when out in public.
Anxiety and panic attacks wait for no one. These things can happen in public. Anxiety attacks when it wants and where it wants. What happens if you’re on a double date, for example, and your partner suddenly has an anxiety attack? Develop plans with your partner about what to do when these situations happen, like having a signal or key word to indicate that things are heading downhill, and an escape plan to get out of there just in case. This way, we don’t have to have anxiety about our anxiety, which can lead to said anxiety, if you followed me there.
7. Do not speak about your partner’s anxiety unless explicitly given permission to do so.
Mental illness is still very much stigmatized in our culture. We are seen as crazy nuts, or people who just let their mind run wild and don’t bother to control it. One of the more interesting judgments that have been passed upon me is that I have no reason to have anxiety, since I have a roof over my head and clothes to wear. I lack nothing, what is there to worry about?
Mental illness does not discriminate. The last thing I want is for your family and friends to pass judgment or alter their opinion of me because you told them about my anxiety, the exception being when it’s highly visible, such as a panic attack.
8. Sometimes you will be the trigger. Do not take this personally.
No, our anxiety will not magically skip over you just because we are dating you. If anything, being in a relationship adds to the anxiety. There are constant questions about how to reply to your text message asking what we are doing, what happens if we upset you, what does our future look like and so on. But do not blame yourself in these situations. Do not feel guilty about any anxiety or panic attacks that stem from you. Anxiety is something we have to live with and deal with, in all aspects of our life.
9. Managing anxiety takes time and practice. Patience is greatly appreciated.
While I cannot speak for everyone, I regularly attend therapy where I talk about my most recent anxious moments and learn about cognitive behavioral therapy, a set of techniques used to manage negative thought processes, the very foundation of anxiety itself. Therapy is difficult and challenging, because you have to repeatedly wrestle with your anxiety to learn how to win. We sometimes get a lot of homework from our counselors as well. It is hard to cope with failure because perfectionism is in our blood. Be supportive of your partner both when they progress and regress. All battles are easier when you can face them with a partner.
10. Never forget that we love you.
Sometimes anxiety can evolve into rage or depression. It’s a shape-shifter; it takes on a lot of different forms. But in the midst of a bad episode or a difficult time, do not forget that we love you, we care about you and we appreciate you more than you know. We appreciate you for standing by us when we are at our worst. Our supporters motivate us to keep growing and changing when things seem impossible. And having someone there who genuinely is interested in your well-being and happiness makes the whole “managing” thing easier. Thank you for everything that you do. We love you.
Fact: It’s super annoying when people who don’t get it offer unsolicited tips for magically “curing” anxiety.
Also a fact: That doesn’t mean you’re powerless. There are things you can do to help manage anxiety.
So to find out what methods and techniques help people get through anxious moments, we asked the real experts — people from our mental health community who live with anxiety every day — to share with us one “anxiety hack” they would offer someone who’s currently struggling.
We hope at least one of these tricks work for you. But if they don’t, that’s OK, too. If you need more support, you can text “HOME” to 741-741 to talk to a crisis counselor. You can also visit the American Association of Anxiety and Depression’s website to find a therapist near you.
You’ve got this. Here’s what they shared with us:
1. “The ‘five, four, three, two, one’ grounding technique. My therapist just ‘tasked’ me with this. Name five thing you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch/feel, two things you can smell, one thing you can taste. You can do any order and number.” — Rachel C.
2. “This might sound silly but I made a ‘happy place’ Instagram account. The only pictures I post are pictures that make me smile, and I only follow accounts with cute animals, inspirational quotes, pretty landscapes and other happy things (I’m pretty sure I follow every last corgi on social media). Whenever I need to, I can scroll through some adorable pictures or remind myself of good memories. I try to slow down my breath with every scroll, and put headphones in just to tune out some of the background noise. My daughter likes it too and we’ve started taking little Instagram breaks during homework/study time.” — Sarah S.
7. “I sing to myself, ‘Every little thing is gonna be alright,’ over and over until I believe it.” — Caroline L.
8. “I recently discovered weighted blankets… Now I use one every night to sleep with. Amazing!” — Stephanie P.
9. “I always keep change in my pocket to use as a grounding technique.” — Alex R.
10. “Keep counting! Literally just keep count different things… it’s enough to distract you, but people don’t notice that you’re doing it.” — Keyleigh H.
11. “Deep breathing exercises. Removing myself from the environment that’s triggering my anxiety and calming down that way. Popping my headphones in my ears with a song that gets me thinking about a calming person or place.” — Sheri T.
12. “Meditation beads have helped me a lot. When I’m feeling anxious I count the beads at the end of my bracelet and concentrate on them and it helps pull me back to reality and out of the anxiety attack.” — Elizabeth M.
13.“Read articles on why you’re anxious and what the biological reasons are for your body and mind behaving as if you’re in danger. Calms me down a lot sometimes.” — Jessi W.
14. “I grab an ice cube and clutch it in my hands, focusing on feeling how cold it is, for as long as I can. By the time I have to dry my hand, the impending attack is usually gone.” — Tiffany N.
15. “Seriously pretend you are smoking. Those deep breath help me.” — Desuri D.
16. “‘If I can get through this 10 seconds, I can get through the next 10 seconds.’ ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ gave me the best mantra to live by with anxiety.” — Erin W.
17. “I have a notebook that I use and write a self-soothing sentence out. I then write the words backwards. Then forwards with my left hand and then backwards with my left hand. The concentration it takes to complete this can often distract me.” — Sarah W.
18. “I have an ‘anxiety toolkit list’ in my phone that’s basically a ‘facts list’ of things I know are true, so that when I get intrusive thoughts, I can counter them with solid facts I wrote in a more calm frame of mind.” — Nerris N.
19. “Tell someone how you are really feeling — we are conditioned to isolate ourselves with ‘I’m fine.’” — Ali M.
20. “Five-seven-eight breathing. In through your nose for four, hold for seven, exhale through mouth for eight. Repeat four to six times. Slows down your heart rate and counting gives you something to focus on instead of what’s making you anxious.” — Mike W.
21. “Keep an anxiety diary. When you are anxious try to focus on what seems to be causing the anxiety … maybe a forthcoming social situation or whatever, and write down the situation in one column. In next column write down the worst thing that can happen; and in the third column note the very best outcome that you can hope for. After the situation has passed revisit the entry in the diary and reflect on what actually happened. Doing this regularly helped me to calm down much more quickly, and retrain my panic response a little.” — Judith B.
22. “I have a mini-checklist: am I hydrated? Am I hungry? Did I sleep well last night? (It could be one of those things). If not, ‘OK. This is anxiety. I’m safe. I’m going to take some breaths, go for a walk,or even just say out loud ‘I’m feeling anxious’” Helps me regain control and deal with the situation I’m facing.” — Katy M.
23. “Carry something they reminds you of the people who are your support system. I wear a ring from my mom and my engagement ring from my fiancé and depending on what support I need or who I miss I end up absentmindedly playing with them and it calms me down to have a very visual reminder that these people love me and are here for me no matter what.” — Melissa O.
When I come home, I’ll tell stories from my three-month vacation in Europe. I’ll talk about the food I ate in Greece and the wine I tasted in France. I’ll brag about the club in Barcelona where I counted down the New Year, I’ll tell anecdotes about the people I met on a pub crawl in Amsterdam.
I will not tell the story of how my trip was overcast by a cloud of anxiety. I won’t recount the sleepless nights or the days I spent in a blur of panic. Nor will I mention my frustration, as I expected my anxiety to disappear as I flew out of Sydney airport — away from the pressures of school, work, relationships — only for it to follow me abroad. I don’t want to admit that I could have enjoyed my holiday more, if it weren’t for my own mind.
At the beginning of the trip, I felt fine as long as I was occupied. Reading, writing, sightseeing, planning, running, partying, cooking — I did anything and everything to keep up with my rapid heartbeat and racing mind. I was the first awake and the last asleep. I thought that if I ignored my anxiety it would eventually stop bothering me, but it only continued to escalate.
My anxiety peaked in the days leading up to Christmas. I spent a particularly bad day shopping at a fresh food market in the South of France — an ordinarily fun task turned overwhelming by anxiety. Amongst the crowds, the noise and my inability to speak French impeding my ability to communicate, I started to panic. I encouraged my family to stop at a café, where I excused myself to the bathroom and found the back door exit to the streets.
I leaned against the stone wall of a nearby church and slid slowly to the ground, hyperventilating. I cried, holding my head in my shaking hands. I closed my eyes and listened to my heartbeat in my ears. Pounding, increasing… finally subsiding. I stood up, used the back of my sleeve to wipe off my tears and lit a cigarette. With each inhale, my breathing slowed down. My lungs felt like mine again. I joined my family in the café, making sure to bounce my way to the table like the carefree girl they know. They asked why my hands were shaking — I blamed the cold.
At night, the silence was deafening. I couldn’t turn my mind off. The thoughts came into my head and piled up so quickly that I could barely hold onto them. I didn’t know what I was thinking about, I just knew that I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t sleep. The only nights I could sleep were those when I had been drinking heavily, leaving me just as exhausted the next day. Usually talkative and energetic, I began to lose the energy to speak.
Eventually, the lack of sleep caught up with me, and I started to catch up on sleep. Slowly but surely, I felt more and more like myself. Perhaps I was just getting used to it, or maybe I was genuinely improving. Regardless, I hated myself for allowing my anxiety to disrupt my holiday so far. But then I received a message.
A friend had been traveling in Cambodia for the past week, and had spent most of that time in bed with a stomach flu. She was frustrated that she had wasted the first part of her holiday being unwell. It sounded familiar.
As we spoke, I realized that I could not control being anxious any more than she could control being sick, and neither of us could solve anything by beating ourselves up. The best next step for both of us was to take advantage of the fact that we were feeling better.
I now recognize that my anxiety may not take a holiday when I do. More importantly, I recognize that it doesn’t have to. I can get through the bad days and make the most of the good days. And when I come home, I’ll remember the panic attacks, the majestic views, the sleepless nights and the times that I laughed wholesomely and genuinely, and know that I can still experience beautiful things in the midst of my anxiety.
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You saw me curled up in a big comfy chair with a large bag of colored pencils and a journal with coloring pages. I had my ear buds in listening to some acoustic songs, trying to center myself and get myself to a more peaceful place. I am sure the reason behind my coloring didn’t even cross your mind, and if it did, you probably could not figure out why a girl my age was sitting there by myself doing an activity that, in your mind, only 5-year-olds should be doing.
“Aren’t you a little old to be coloring?”
I didn’t really answer your question then, mainly because I did not know what to say and was caught off guard, but I am going to answer it now.
No, I am not too old to be coloring. You told me that you used to color when you were a little kid, but that people my age don’t color. First of all, have you looked in Barnes and Noble? The store is filled with coloring books and Mandala books for children, teens and adults. Granted, I know you are quite a bit older than me and so we have very different experiences; you may not be up to date on the latest trends, and I certainly do not hold that against you.
However, you talked to me for 40 minutes in Barnes and Noble, when I do not even know you. I was trying to be polite and listen, but the truth is, I just wanted to return to my coloring book, music and forget about everything for a little while. By the comments you made, I’m sure you thought of me as silly and naïve, you certainly did not take my field that I am in seriously. “Well, have fun picking apart people’s brains,” you said to me about social work as you left.
Here is the thing — you don’t know a thing about me. You made assumptions without knowing the story, the background, the truth. I was in Barnes and Noble trying to kill time, minding my own business, when I was interrupted in a not so nice way. You probably didn’t know that before coloring in Barnes and Noble, I was sitting in the parking lot for half an hour having a meltdown. You probably didn’t know that I was experiencing symptoms of anxiety, fatigue and low blood sugar that all piled up to create one big mess to the point where I was in tears unable to go into the store for a chunk of time.
You probably didn’t know that before driving to Barnes and Noble, I climbed six flights of stairs on campus with a heavy backpack and a chronic illness, just to be too scared to walk into the student lounge, so I turned around and descended the same six flight of steps. I felt dizzy and weak, I felt as if my body could collapse.
You also probably didn’t know that prior to that, I was in the store on campus buying some school supplies, and counted my money incorrectly at the cash register due to brain fog and anxiety, and felt so embarrassed and anxious that my body started to shake. You must not realize what it is like to live with a mental illness and a chronic physical illness for that matter.
I know because I know your life story after listening to you talk for a good solid 40 minutes. You certainly had your challenges that you faced, so why did you judge a book by its cover? Did you ever think that maybe I was trying to cope with one of my own challenges? That I was doing something to help myself get to a better place? It probably never occurred to you that I have anxiety disorders, or that I have a rare metabolic disease along with some other chronic health problems. I was just trying to get myself through the rest of my day, doing what I had to do to get by, and I really did not need or appreciate the comments that you, a total stranger, made to me.
So, to go back to your question, no, of course, I am not too old to color. I am not too old to journal. I am not too old to hug my stuffed animals when I feel scared or anxious, or when I am in the midst of a panic attack. I have to do what I have to do to get myself through the fear, and over the mountains that sometimes prevent me from living my life to the fullest. We all have barriers and obstacles we need to learn to overcome. Mine may seem silly to you, but to me, they are very real and frightening, and I am not going to be ashamed of using my coping skills and taking care of myself, no matter where I am.
Next time you see someone doing something that you don’t understand or that you think is silly, I invite you to keep an open mind, and to remember that we all have very different, unique experiences. You never know what kind of battle that person may be fighting, and if you do not know the reason or story behind the action, don’t judge. Take a step back and think before you speak.
However, thank you for reminding me that I need to stand up for myself more. I often am too afraid to speak up out of fear of hurting others feelings, but I should have politely told you that I could not talk at the moment. I am not holding on to the anger and frustration that I felt when you were putting in your two sense. It is not worth it. I am letting it all go because there are other things that I could be worrying about. I just thought you should know the answer to your question.
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