Jessica is a young married woman undergoing considerable distress because of recent unexpected feelings of intense anxiety. This was accommpanied by a pounding heart, a tightness in her chest, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, and intense fear. She does not know why this is happening and she is understandably concerned. When this occurred several times within a month she feared a heart attack and went to see her doctor. Fortunately, her tests were all negative and her doctor prescribed a mild tranquillizer.
Most people are unaware that such symptoms can be caused by anxiety and we do not always understand why. Some people like Jessica think that the panic symptoms are signs of a heart attack, impending death, or a loss of control over one’s mind and body. In fact, assuming you have been cleared medically by your physician after a thorough physical examination, these symptoms may be signs that your body is simply directing energy to self-protection. Anxiety is a response to a perceived threat whether that threat is real or not.
Acute anxiety can be seen as a “powering up” of energy needed to deal with a life-threatening situation. We become primed for immediate action, which gives us the feeling we are either dying, going crazy, or losing control of ourselves. Once triggered, all the symptoms of the “flight or fight” response are initiated. This may explain why anxiety and panic attacks involve a wide range of symptoms rather than only one or two. This “flight or fight” response is associated with an increase in the rate of breathing which allows more oxygen to be taken in. This symptom can result in breathlessness and even pain and tightening in the chest area. In turn, the blood supply to the head may be decreased producing dizziness, confusion, blurred vision, unreality, and hot flushes. We then start to sweat, which is our body’s attempt to cool down. Since this all takes a lot of energy, the anxiety sufferer may feel exhausted once the symptoms subside.
Symptoms of anxiety can be prompted by variety of factors as follows:
- External triggers such as loud noises or visual threats such as vehicles, dogs, or muggers,
- General life stress may create a high level of adrenalin such as when we are required to speak in public or if we feel trapped by a large crowd,
- Hypersensitivity to the normal variations of our physical state such as reactions to various foods or medications resulting in minor changes in the heart rate or body temperature, and
- Slight hyperventilation as a result of breathing too fast, for instance during or after running, which may cause light-headedness or sweating.
Sometimes people start to avoid situations that are associated with their anxiety but it may be their physical responses rather than the situation that is the cause of the problem. Unfortunately, avoidance can lead to severe restrictions in daily activities but no relief from symptoms.
Treatments for panic and anxiety include medication and/or therapy. Certain medications can provide fast-acting anxiety reduction. However, some anti-anxiety medications can have serious side effects, are dangerous if taken in large quantities or combined with alcohol, and may have a diminished affect on anxiety over time. Always consult with your physician before taking medications for anxiety.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in treating panic and anxiety disorders. Individuals learn to identify core beliefs and thought patterns that lead to anxiety symptoms. By changing these cognitive patterns individuals learn to avoid the negative thoughts that lead to panic and anxiety. In addition, such treatment may involve learning relaxation techniques such as paced breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. And for those triggered by specific situations like fear of driving or fear of public speaking, various forms of systematic desensitization have proven to be most helpful.
Anxiety exists to protect us from threatening situations and occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. However, if anxiety or panic attacks are causing serious problems contact your physician, your local mental health office, or a registered psychologist or counsellor.
Ref: Aboussafy, Ph.D., David. 2006. Don’t Panic: Causes of Anxiety and Panic Symptoms. UBC & UCounsel Corporation.