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Anxiety Attacks

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety can be described as a painful uneasiness of mind, usually over an anticipated ill. An abnormal apprehension and fear often accompanied by physiological signs such as sweating and increased pulse, by doubt about the nature and reality of the ‘threat’ itself and by self-doubt. Most everyone will experience feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. Whether it’s the birth of your first child, sudden loss of a job, or in preparation for a major medical procedure, most of us will experience occasions where our stress level becomes overwhelming. A close relative of excitement, anxiety can be best described in terms of worry, a general troubled or uneasy feeling of apprehension. The worry associated with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is chronic, persistent and habitual, often initiated by unrealistic situations or thoughts. In addition, this worry is seemingly uncontrollable and often interferes with our ability to concentrate or otherwise function comfortably and normally. For DSM IV classification of GAD, excessive, uncontrollable worry and anxiety should be present for more than half the days in a six-month period. The symptoms of anxiety will also cause ‘clinically important distress or impair work, social or personal functioning,’ distress not brought on by a general medical condition or substance abuse. Individuals suffering from anxiety often experience a host of physical symptoms including: inner nervousness, diarrhea, heightened blood pressure, shortness of breath, headaches, irritability, fatigue, sweating, muscle tension and shakiness. Generalized anxiety disorder can coexist with other ailments including panic disorder, depression, and alcoholism. Much is often made about the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack; but both have their origins in the physiological response associated with the ‘fight or flight’ response. The ‘fight or flight’ response is the body’s fundamental, innate defense-response designed to ensure our survival. When we perceive excessive stress or imminent danger, the area of the brain called the hypothalamus triggers the release of naturally occurring biochemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol, sodium lactate and more. Simplified, these internally generated chemicals GREATLY increase our pain threshold; give us a powerful boost of energy, sharpens our senses, and increases our blood and oxygen supply to vital organs and muscles. This physiological response provides the body with the physical and mental “fuel” necessary to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ the perceived threat. This stress response was of great benefit to our ancestors warding off an attack by an enemy tribe, or fleeing the jaws of a hungry saber-toothed tiger. But these types of real, imminent physical threats to our survival are really more the exception rather than the rule in our society. More often than not, it’s not the ringing of your smoke alarm at 2am that triggers the release of these stress hormones. Today, it’s more likely the person who cut you off on the busy freeway on your way to work, or the verbal exchange you had with your spouse. So instead of burning off this excess energy for the fuel it was meant to provide us (by actually running or fighting), these stress hormones are left to breakdown in the body. This is extremely taxing on our overall mental and physical health.

Anxiety Attacks

So while getting back to the difference between and an anxiety attack and a panic attack it’s best to compare the two in terms of severity. An anxiety attack includes all the body symptoms associated with HIGH anxiety: inner nervousness, increased pulse, shakiness, etc. But this anxiety is long lasting and doesn’t appear “out of the blue.” A panic attack on the other hand strikes abruptly, is marked by intense fear and discomfort, and takes about 20 minutes to fully build, peak and ebb. One is left with continued anxiety but not panic.

Michelle’s case history serves as a good example of the typical GAD sufferer’s experience.“Ever since I was a small child; I have always had this fear which I described to my doctor as “a funny feeling” in my stomach. Needless to say, no one understood what this small child meant and I had no other way to express what I was feeling. School was especially difficult for me. I would have these ‘nervous attacks’ in class and I knew everyone was looking at me as I sat there, perspiring. I just kind of held on to my desk, praying the bell would ring so I could get out and get some air. I felt this same way anytime I had to talk in front people, eat out at a restaurant with my family or travel to some place new.Things really got bad for me when I entered college. My grades were good enough that I received a partial scholarship to a prominent nursing school. But, the more I learned about the various medical maladies and procedures, the more I began to worry that I might be suffering from a serious medical problem myself. I obsessed that I had a heart condition, a brain tumor, leukemia -whatever we were studying, I developed the symptoms. I saw our family physician on a regular basis, to no avail. Test after test confirmed that physically, I was perfectly fine. I didn’t believe it. I thought he just had to be missing something. I was always nervous and jittery. My heart would always be racing. I had strange aches and numbness in my arms and legs. My doctor suggested that it was likely just stress, and prescribed some (prescription drug brand). The pills did help me relax, but I felt like a zombie and only took them if things got really bad. I believed I was alone, totally different from everyone else and quite possibly, ‘losing my mind.’”
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