Updated: Jun 22
Anxiety. Even reading that word can bring up feelings of pure dread. So, let’s all take a breath together now before continuing this read (in through the nose, out through the mouth).
While not everyone will experience anxiety in the same way, I can bet my life that none of these experiences that take place are pleasant. Anxiety attacks can feel so bad, that around a quarter of visits to A&E for heart attacks, end up being anxiety attacks.
Recent research has shown that in one of the UK’s top therapy directories, the word anxiety was selected 83,202 times when asked 'whats worrying you?', which is a huge amount, so let’s look at 7 practical ways to stop an anxiety attack.
1. Accept the experience
The truth about anxiety is that it's as much a physical experience as it is a mental one. Our primal brain has triggered the fight, flight or freeze response which then releases a whole concoction of chemicals into our bodies.
Usually when we feel an anxiety attack coming on, our immediate response is to panic as we obviously don’t want this to happen! But by panicking, we usually end up feeling more anxious and the more panicked we become, the more overwhelming the tsunami of feelings are.
What to do? It may feel incredibly unnatural but try to take a deep breath, and accept that in this moment, while these feelings are surfacing, that you need to stay with them, notice they are there, and to an extent, roll with it.
While this one step won’t stop the anxiety attack from happening, it will help to slow down the pace and rate of the attack.
2. It’s not me, it’s you… the anxiety
Take a step back and recognise the anxiety as separate from you.
I am big on helping my clients to learn how to self soothe and self-regulate and a great way to do this when you feel an anxiety attack coming on, is to talk to your anxiety. It may feel a little odd if you’re not used to doing this, and if you’re not alone or speaking out loud feels too much, talk to your anxiety in your head.
Saying things to it such as ‘‘Okay anxiety, I see you’re back at it again. I accept you’re here, but I know that you are not permanent and that whatever you’re going to make me think in this moment, I’ll know this is you talking and not the reality of who I am. These thoughts and feelings are not coming from me.’’
3. More mindfulness, less judging
It can be helpful to note your exact symptoms while they are occurring, for example, note that you can feel your heart beating, your breath feels quite fast, that your throat may feel dry. By taking note and accepting what is going on, tends to lessen the anxiety.
Notice the anxious thoughts that are coming up for you, but without added judgement to what is happening to you.
What you may find useful is to see the anxious thoughts as a series of waves. Different sizes, different strengths, but you are going to just breath your way through the first one and then the others. Remember, while it might feel like it in the moment, no wave lasts forever.
4. Focus on something close by
By focusing on a particular object with all of your attention, this will help to slow the anxiety down. The object doesn’t need to be anything special or have any meaning, but whatever is closest to you.
Say for example you start to feel your anxiety rise and an attack is on the way while leaving a crowded theatre. Focus on the jacket the person in front of you is wearing, notice the colour, the material, the pattern, the seam lines. Notice how the coat moves and shapes as the person in front of you moves their body. Think if this is a coat you would buy and what it would feel like to wear.
Or alternately, something which works well for some people is to focus on a phrase or mantra. It could be a particular mantra that you like, for example, ‘This too shall pass’.
5. Stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system
By triggering your parasympathetic nervous system, you begin to counteract your sympathetic nervous system which is what is activated during an anxiety attack. The pounding heart, on edge feelings, sweating- yup, that’s the sympathetic nervous system communicating that it’s activated, as if you didn't already know!
So how to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system to slow down your heart rate and lower the anxiety? I’ll give you some options:
· Deep steady breathing. Breathe in through the nose for 5 counts, and out through the mouth for 8 counts.
· Gentle touch, hold yourself by either hugging yourself, stoke your arms, stroke your head or put your right hand over your heart centre and rub in a slow and soothing way, with your other hand over your stomach.
· Progressive muscle release- by working through the muscles in your body, practice by tensing muscle groups for 5 seconds and then releasing for 10 seconds.
· Yogic stretches. These are stretches that are held and that you breathe through.
6. CBT techniques to help change your thoughts
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focuses on the connection of thoughts, feelings, and actions. In the case of an anxiety attack, our anxious thoughts trigger our body to be stressed. If we can start to change the thoughts, it can help stop the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response.
Here is a condensed version of a CBT ‘thought record‘ you can you use when having an anxiety attack:
· What is the exact thought making me anxious?
· What proof do I have that this thought is true?
· What is the exact opposite thought to this one?
· And what proof do I have that that exact opposite thought is true?
· Can I find a balanced thought in the middle of these two extremes?
It sounds complicated, but with practise it can start to feel second nature.
7. Go to your happy place
While being able to think of a new visualisation of somewhere you want to be or travel to is unrealistic in the throes of an anxiety attack, start with going to your safe and happy place.
Think now while you’re not having an anxiety attack, where that place is and what that looks and feels like, and keep that as a go to in your mind, for when you need it.
The idea here is to find an image or place that makes you feel safe, it makes you feel relaxed, and it makes you feel good. This could be something like sitting on a beach under an umbrella, or being surrounded by nature, or in your favourite park, or perhaps holding and stroking your pet.
The more you get to know and practice thinking of this place with these positive associations and creating it as something very vivid in your mind, it will help you when you’re experiencing anxiety by taking you to that safe, calm and happy place.
Something that works personally for me if I notice anxious feelings coming up, is to prioritise taking myself for a 10-15 minute walk. This way I can self soothe by talking to myself while walking (in my head) and allowing my body to adjust to its healthy circadian rhythm, calming my sympathetic nervous system down.
These are just 7 ways to help ease an anxiety attack, but there are of course other options which may work better for you, and if that’s the case, then keep leaning on the ones which help you the most. We’re all unique, so what works well for one person, may work less well for another.
The key is to try as many of the suggestions above, as you’ll end up giving yourself the best possible approach to stopping or at least calming an anxiety attack. It may be helpful to keep these tools in your toolbox, and over time you might want to learn new techniques elsewhere, or fine tune one of the above in a way that suits you, which is always a useful thing to do.
The more we decide to approach and work with the anxiety attacks instead of trying to avoid them or push them away, the less of them we begin to have. You got this.
If you're wanting to have more support around anxiety and anxiety attacks, lets work through this together, my door is always open to you and you're very welcome to get in touch with me at email@example.com
All the best,