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What are the symptoms of an anxiety attack?

August 28, 2019

Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience from time to time, for example before an exam, a driving test, job interview or when we have to make a speech in front of people. Most people will know that feeling. But how can you tell if what you’re feeling is related to normal anxiety or an anxiety attack? And when should you seek support or treatment?

The first symptoms of anxiety begin in the body. Usually people notice that their heart is racing or pounding, and their hands or legs might be shaking a bit. This is simply the body’s response to the stress or challenge you’re facing: it’s getting ready to take action.

It’s also normal to feel a bit dizzy or lightheaded. This is because your breathing gets faster as your heart rate rises; again, this is the body making sure you’re getting enough oxygen to react to the situation.

The symptoms are experienced on a sliding scale. If you’re feeling mildly anxious you might just have a slightly increased heart rate. At the top of the scale is what we call a panic attack. People really notice that their heart is beating fast, and their legs might feel like jelly. They might also have symptoms in their tummy, such as butterflies or feeling sick.

At this point, the mind often decides to join in! This can result in negative thoughts about the physical symptoms and what they mean – you might worry that you’re really poorly, for example.

It’s natural when you feel anxious to try and make it go away by fighting the symptoms, but this can actually make it worse. It’s like being in a tug of war, with anxiety pulling at one end and you at the other. The best thing to do is stop and think: are you trying to battle with your anxiety? Ask yourself whether it’s helping; the answer is probably “no”.

Anxiety is a normal response to stressful things in life, like a big decision or an important event. However, if the symptoms are interfering with your life, or they seem to happen for no reason, it’s a good idea to seek help. It’s common for people to avoid doing things, for example. If you’ve started to turn down invitations to go out with friends, decided not to go for a job you want, or stopped driving, consider looking for support.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for anxiety is a very effective form of treatment. A talking therapy, it will help you understand what’s causing your anxiety, and learn strategies, skills and techniques to reduce the symptoms – usually by changing how you think or behave.

High quality online CBT is as effective as face-to-face treatment. Learn more about CBT and find out whether you can refer yourself for online CBT in your area.

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