Anxiety is one of the most pernicious of our current epidemics. It lurks below the surface, sometimes undetectable, until it erupts. And then, we have no capacity for managing relationships, chores — even the most basic work functions.
While some health organizations claim only 11% of Americans suffer from panic attacks, the number is likely much largely; after all, who thinks to report it when they’re doubled over?
Even if you haven’t experienced a panic attack, the immense pressures and tectonic shifts in society of late have put all of us on edge. It’s good to know when an attack might be around the corner and how you can stop it in its tracks.
Here are a few signs to look for:
1. Basic communication becomes debilitating.
Agonizing over using “Thanks” or “Best” in your email sign-off? Terrified that emoji in Slack sent the wrong signal and caused drastic ripple effects that will result in irreparable harm to yourself, your coworkers, or the company? You’re over-analyzing, which is a way of attempting to control communication so that you can guarantee a specific outcome — which, of course, you can’t. This can quickly spiral out, leading to a full-on panic attack.
2. You dread going to sleep at night.
Anxiety is usually pinned to two sleep problems: The inability to fall asleep (given an over-active mind) and resistance to getting out of bed in the morning (tied to a fear of facing the anxiety-inducing day). However, if you dread going to sleep at night — and other medical conditions aren’t at play — it may well be because your mind is associating sleep with morning and morning with anxiety. The extended connection may be a sign that you’re so anxious you’re attempting to create even greater distance between yourself and whatever is causing the anxiety.
3. You take no joy in your favorite hobbies or activities.
Those who suffer from anxiety are often urged to find some calm in pleasant activities — something they genuinely enjoy doing. If the mind is so absorbed in anxious thought it has no room for that enjoyment, however, it’s a sign a panic attack might be near.
How to stop a panic attack
Okay, so you may be close to a panic attack. What can you do about it? Start here:
You’ve heard this a million times, probably, but that’s because it works. There are several formulas for the best breathing cadence, but even something as simple as a four-count inhale and four-count exhale can do the trick. How does this help? It slows your heart rate and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces calm.
2. Change your routine or setting.
This doesn’t have to be drastic, but if you change your daily schedule and/or where you get your work done, your brain will find new ways to occupy itself. For instance: How do I shift my schedule while ensuring I can complete all my tasks? How can I set up my new work location so I can be efficient? Sometimes, these basic changes are enough to get the mind off the anxiety rails.
3. Tell someone what’s going on.
Again, simple — but helpful. Articulating your anxiety often diffuses it. With the mind busy with analysis, it sometimes loses sight of reality. It’s kind of like saying the same word so many times it begins to sound, well, wrong. If you express yourself to someone else and get out of your spiral, it gives you a chance to reset with a new perspective. (Importantly, sharing your anxiety struggles with someone else is also a pressure release of sorts — acknowledging that it’s there, and letting it go.)
These aren’t perfect solutions, but I hope they help give you some calm and clarity in moments when anxiety is about to erupt. (And as always, if you feel like you’re having medical issues, consult a medical professional.)