What is an Anxiety Attack: Understanding the Basics and Triggers

Apr 19, 20246 min
Anxiety Attack: Understanding the Basics and Triggers

“I get so anxious these days. I feel like I have been overthinking all the time.” I often hear my clients and peers say something similar when discussing their mental health. The increased access to information through the Internet has made it easier to identify and talk about our feelings.

But what is anxiety really? How do we know that what we’re feeling is an anxiety attack?  

It might sound scary at first, but since when has ‘attack’ been a gentle word? However, learning more about this emotion can make it easier for us to identify and deal with it.     

Is anxiety a monster? 

Simply put, anxiety is a feeling of apprehension about possible danger. American Psychological Association defines Anxiety as an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes such as increased blood pressure or a rapid heartbeat. 

Even though these definitions accurately describe the experience of anxiety, they might portray anxiety as some big bad monster who’s about to ruin our day. Believe it or not, the emotion of anxiety can sometimes be a helpful side character too! The versatile nature of anxiety is such that it helps us plan and prepare for a possible threat. So when we find ourselves experiencing anxiety in mild to moderate intensity, it actually enhances learning and performance. For example, a mild amount of anxiety about how you will do on your next exam, or in your next work presentation, can help you plan better for such events.

When the anxiety increases to a higher level, it stops being helpful and starts impacting our ability to do things - that is when it becomes a problem. 

What does anxiety look like?

During a session with *Rohit, he describes his anxiety saying, “The moment I was about to enter that meeting, my hands started sweating and I got breathless. It felt like anxiety had taken over my body and I just couldn't do anything. I think I just sat there for the longest time and couldn't speak up in the meeting. My mouth felt so dry but I kept thinking that I should say something, or add to the meeting. Any time I would come up with something I would doubt myself and again start feeling anxious, so I just stayed silent.”     

Rohit’s experience highlights how anxiety can overwhelm us and impact our thoughts, and behaviour. What is also apparent is how anxiety shows up in our bodies, that is how we physically experience the emotion. 

  • Body: Some notable physical symptoms of anxiety include restlessness, increased heartbeat, difficulty breathing, tightness/heaviness in the chest, uneasiness or ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, difficulty sleeping, trembling or shaking, dry mouth, sweating and even stomachache or headache. Through Rohit’s description, we see him go through some of these physical symptoms such as sweating, breathlessness, and dry mouth. 
  • Mind: Anxiety’s impact on the mind can often show up in our thoughts. People can experience excessive worry and often are unable to control the worry. Generally, the worry would be repetitive negative thoughts that are linked to anticipation of some bad outcome in the future. For instance, Rohit was extremely worried that he might say the wrong thing in his office meeting and that it would ultimately result in him being fired from his job. Even though he had prepared for the meeting and knew the material, he was still struggling to calmly come up with responses because of the excessive worrying. Additionally, one might also face difficulty in concentration and decision-making. 
  • Behaviour: From Rohit’s example, it is evident how anxiety and excessive worrying thoughts impacted his behaviour in the meeting. He remained silent in the entire meeting out of fear of saying the wrong thing, even though he had wanted to participate earlier. Oftentimes anxiety influences our behaviour in situations that trigger the emotion. Some of those behavioural changes can be avoidance of certain situations, isolating ourselves, withdrawing from situations, reacting irritably, and being easily startled.  

What is an anxiety attack? 

Anxiety is a feeling that we all experience at some point or the other. Right before a job interview, before we have to go up on stage. But there are times when it might not leave easily, feel very intense and might even make it difficult to do the task we need to do – that is when we experience an anxiety attack. It might be a gradual increase in the intensity of anxiety, excessive worrying and however else we experience it. This means that each person has a unique experience with anxiety attacks and may have distinct anxiety symptoms than others. 

Although anxiety attacks can be monsters, we can still learn how to fight them. And to start our learning, let us understand how we can locate these monsters before we even start fighting them.  

What triggered Rohit’s anxiety?         

After hearing Rohit share about his anxiety attack, one can assume that his office meeting is what triggered his anxiety. 

But what even is a trigger? 

Trigger is the origin point of an incoming anxiety attack. So when you start to locate the monster that is the anxiety attack, you would need to look out for that starting point. It refers to stimuli that affect your emotional state, often significantly, by causing extreme overwhelm or distress. However, since we all are on our separate emotional journies, these starting points can look different for us. Meaning that triggers for an anxiety attack can be unique for different people. So when it comes to anxiety, any number of situations could trigger an anxiety attack. 

  • Situational triggers: For many people, an already stressful life situation may boil over into an anxiety attack. These situational triggers could include Relationship conflicts, Work-related stress, Financial stress, Performances or presentations, Exams, Social Situations like parties and so on.
  • Health conditions: Health conditions, both physical and mental can trigger an anxiety attack. A health diagnosis that’s upsetting or difficult, such as cancer or a chronic illness, may trigger anxiety or make it worse. 
  • Diet: Our diet can also influence and trigger anxiety. That morning cup of coffee might trigger or worsen anxiety. Research showed that young adult men experienced higher stress and anxiety levels after continued consumption of Energy drinks that contain caffeine. 
  • Personal triggers: Finally, there can be personal triggers that may be difficult to identify as they remind you, either consciously or unconsciously, of a bad memory or traumatic event in your life. 

How can we identify our triggers?

If we can identify and understand our triggers, we can work towards managing our anxiety. Coping would mean learning specific strategies or techniques to handle the anxiety triggers when they happen.

Here are three ways you can identify your triggers:

  • Journal our emotions: When we journal, we can reflect on situations and how they made us feel. Writing down when your anxiety is noticeable from the signs and symptoms, and recording what you think might have led to it will help us identify the trigger. 
  • Self-reflection: Anxiety often leads to negative thoughts and poor self-assessments. This means that because of anxiety our thoughts automatically turn negative and we might even start seeing ourselves in a negative light. That makes identifying triggers all the more difficult since we end up focusing on only the negative thoughts that worry us. So it becomes crucial that we be patient with ourselves, navigate those negative thoughts and be willing to explore things in our past to identify how they may affect us today.
  • Work with a therapist: Some anxiety triggers can be difficult to identify, but a therapist is trained to help and guide you through the process. Being in therapy would again allow you the time and space to reflect on situations, and your own emotions but this time with a professional who can help you connect the dots to find the triggers. Through therapy, you would also be able to navigate the negative thoughts better by learning new coping strategies.
How can we identify our triggers - Therapyclub

What to take away?

  • An anxiety attack can be overwhelming and without knowing how to deal with them, we might feel helpless. 
  • However, learning about this emotional experience can be the first step in dealing with anxiety. 
  • Remember that occasional mild anxiety is nothing to be afraid of! Anxiety as an emotion helps us prepare and plan for situations. 
  • When these feelings become unbearable, severe or chronic, we need to examine how to cope with them. To learn how to cope with an anxiety attack, we must identify what is triggering that anxiety attack for us. 

You can start by being curious and reflecting on what makes you anxious. Knowing your triggers is the first step to managing anxiety attacks.     

References

Gepp, K. (2022). 11 Anxiety Triggers and How to Identify and Manage Them. Healthline. Retrieved January 13, 2024, from https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/anxiety-triggers#seek-help

Kaur, S, et al. (2020). Consumption of energy drinks is associated with depression, anxiety, and stress in young adult males: evidence from a longitudinal cohort study. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/da.23090

Psychology Today. (2020). Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety. Psychology Today. Retrieved January 13, 2024, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/anxiety/signs-anxiety

Author's Profile picture
Prachi Gangwani
Therapist | Yoga Teacher | Author of Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India