How to Reduce Your Anxiety Attacks

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Anxiety is a normal part of life, but it can become an overwhelming problem for some people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 31.1% of all U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

A little bit of anxiety can actually be a good thing at times; it helps keep us safe and out of trouble (our brains are biologically wired to protect us).

Unfortunately, there are millions of people living with excessive and difficult anxiety symptoms all of the time. It’s as though their “idle” is set too high and they are frequently plagued by fear, panic, and self-doubt, which can cause people to feel nervous and to engage in thoughts and behaviors that can affect their lives and health.

Symptoms of excessive anxiety can include:

  • Predicting the worst outcome in situations
  • Avoiding risk and conflict
  • Having chronic muscle tension
  • Experiencing panic attacks

In studying the brains of anxious subjects, researchers discovered that certain areas of the brain are overactive compared to the brains of those without anxiety. One such area is called the basal ganglia, a set of large structures near the center of the brain that are involved with the integration of thought, feeling, and movement as well as motivation and pleasure.

Steps for Reducing Anxiety

So while your biology might make you more prone to anxiety, this does not mean that you must simply learn to live with it. Anxiety attacks can be frightening, but there are steps that you can take to help control your anxiety and panic symptoms.

Practice Slower, Deeper Breathing

Slow down your breathing. Many people don’t pay attention to their breathing during an anxiety attack when their breathing usually becomes shallow, rapid, and erratic. This type of breathing decreases the oxygen in the brain, which will trigger fear and panic (again, part of our biological wiring). When you take slow deep breaths, you increase the blood flow to your brain, which will put you back in control.

Research has found that deep breathing can have a number of beneficial effects including lowering heart rate, improving mood, and lowering stress.

One way to practice deep breathing is by learning how to breathe from your diaphragm—the area of the body that tends to get “clenched” when we’re anxious. This is also known as belly breathing.

Guide to Belly Breathing

Lie on your back and place a small book on your belly.

Breathe slowly and deeply with your belly. When you inhale, make the book go up. When you exhale, make the book go down.

  1. Take five seconds to inhale
  2. Hold it for two seconds.
  3. Take five seconds to exhale.
  4. Hold it for two seconds.
  5. Repeat.
  6. Do this 10 times.

You may refer to this technique as 5 x 2 = 10.

It may take a while to get the hang of it, but keep practicing — your brain and body will thank you.

Change Negative Thoughts

Pay attention to the thoughts in your mind and write them down to see if they make sense. Often in panicked situations, our thoughts are distorted and need to be challenged. So, it may be a good idea to kill the automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that make us feel miserable.

Research has shown that automatic negative thoughts are positively correlated with psychological anxiety. This means that having these kinds of thoughts can be a trigger for feelings of nervousness, panic, and anxiety. By learning how to identify and then replace these automatic thoughts with more positive, realistic ones, you can better control your responses.

Face Your Fears

Don’t leave, run away from, or ignore whatever is causing you the anxiety (unless of course, it is life-threatening). You must face the fear or concern directly, or it will always have control over you and cause you anxiety.

You may need to talk to a trained psychotherapist about your anxiety and fears, especially if you’ve been exposed to the trauma of any kind. There are some proven therapeutic methods for helping people overcome the symptoms brought on by traumatic or life-threatening experiences, and those that cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Seek Help

You don't have to face your anxiety alone. Therapy with a trained mental health professional can support your recovery and teach you the strategies you need to overcome your anxiety. Some therapy approaches that may help with anxiety include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that involves learning to identify the irrational or negative thoughts that contribute to anxiety and then working to change those thoughts and behaviors.
  • Exposure therapy is an approach that involves gradually being exposed to the source of your fears until these things or situations no longer trigger the anxious response. People usually start small (such as imagining the thing they fear) and then progressively work up to actually exposing themselves to the real thing (such as public speaking).
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can be helpful for reducing stress and anxiety that stems from trauma. It helps to remove the emotional charges of traumatic memories.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Consider Anxiety Medications

If you’ve been using strategies to control anxiety but still feel overwhelmed by feelings of worry or panic, it may be time to talk to your doctor about trying medications that can help control your anxiety.

Medications commonly prescribed for anxiety include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac (fluoxetine), Paxil (paroxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Benzodiazepines such as Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and Valium (diazepam)
  • Buspirone
  • Tricyclic antidepressants such as Tofranil (imipramine) and Anafranil (clomipramine)

There are also complementary approaches such as herbs, vitamins, and supplements that may be helpful. Magnesium, GABA, ashwagandha, and some of the B vitamins, especially B6, may have some beneficial effects, although further research on the effects of these supplements is needed.

Always discuss medication or adding supplements with your physician before taking them. Also, be sure to tell your doctor if you are taking any medications or supplements.

A Word From Verywell

In summary, when panic or anxiety starts to set in, remember to focus on some of the strategies that may help you control these feelings. Slow down your breathing and breathe deeply from your belly. Don’t run away from your fears. Face them and work through them. Consider starting small and gradually working your way up to facing the sources of your anxiety. Also, be sure to pay attention to your thoughts and challenge them.

While self-help strategies can be powerful, you don't have to take it on alone. Talk to your doctor or mental health professional about your feelings of anxiety. Therapy and medication can also help you manage your anxiety and improve your mental well-being.

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