Your heart is pounding, your chest is feeling tight and you can’t breathe, you feel sick in the stomach, your body is tense and you are starting to sweat. You are having an anxiety attack and wondering how long is this anxiety attack going to last? This blog will answer this question, talk about what anxiety is, and give a heads up on how anxiety can actually worsen.
Most times, these symptoms will pass after a few minutes, or a few hours when faced with a feared situation like going to the dentist, going on a first date with someone you fancy, asking the boss for a raise or making a speech. They come and go depending on how stressed we are, or when we have to face several stressful situations at the same time. If our stress bucket is already full, it would not take much for it to over flow. However, at times our anxiety can last for days, even when the cause of the anxiety is no longer there. Sometimes, our anxiety can get so bad; it can start to run our lives.
Back in the days when we were cavemen, fear is an inbuilt survival instinct. If we are chased by a hungry lion, we will run (flight) or we will fight if we are attacked by the enemy. This is known as the fight or flight response. In order to fight or flight, the body has to be prepared. Our breathing becomes faster, heart rate and blood pressure increases, more blood is sent to our arms and legs so we can run or fight. Stress hormones are released into our body, our muscles tense up, we are more alert and our attention becomes sharper. When there is danger, these physical changes will help us react faster and save our lives, or get ourselves out of a stressful situation. For example, your child runs towards the edge of a cliff and you have get to her before she topples over. Or you are able to sprint 100 metres worthy of Usain Bolt (100 m champion) if you are running late for your school bus and if you miss it you will be late for your exams!
So, anxiety can be a helpful emotion, particularly if we have to react to a stressful or dangerous situation. However, in the present day, most threats are not physical. When the brain perceives any threat or danger, the body still reacts the same way whether the threat is physical or emotional. When the threat is emotional, we do not have to expand the energy to fight or flight. Therefore, we feel the increase in energy as anxiety symptoms – increased heart rate, tenseness in the muscles, butterflies (digestion shuts down as we don’t need it to survive) and feeling sweaty (sweat will make us slippery and harder to be grabbed by the enemy).
Given anxiety can be an unpleasant experience, we have a natural tendency to want to avoid what makes us anxious. However, if we avoid what makes us anxious, we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to learn that we can cope with the stressful situation and that we can get through it. Instead, avoiding the situation reinforces the idea that there is something to be afraid of, and only serves to keep our anxiety going. So even though in the short term, avoiding our fears relieves our anxiety, avoidance actually keeps our anxiety going for longer!
Here’s an example. Carey is bitten by a dog at a park. Carey may start to avoid all parks in case she gets bitten again, Then Carey starts avoiding walking anywhere around where she lives even though she has walked around her neighbourhood for many times over many years and there are no dangerous dogs. The fear then becomes irrational. Obviously this is not helpful at all as it will stop her from going to school or work or doing the things she enjoys (e.g. play netball, go shopping, and attend parties). When Carey has to go out, she starts to feel anxious. Then Carey decides not to go (avoid) and will instantly feel relieved. Over time, the reward of feeling better will reinforce that going out is unpleasant and staying home will feel good, and Carey will end up not going out at all. Carey will start to associate going out as scary and that increases her anxiety when she has to go out. Her self-talk can become anxiety related: “It’s not safe out there”; “something bad will happen”; “people will judge me”. These unhelpful thinking styles will definitely maintain Carey’s anxiety. And although Carey gets to avoid feeling anxious, Carey may start to feel down because of the restrictions anxiety is now having on her life.
Anxiety can come and go, or be triggered by certain memories, situations or persons; or become more pronounced during stressful times in your life. Sometimes, anxiety can become worse – as fears expand on to more and more situations. At times, it can spill over into other areas of your life. For example, feeling anxious at work due to work place bullying can turn into feeling anxious in any social situation and the anxiety starts to affect your quality of life.
The good news is – anxiety is treatable and you can learn how to manage your anxiety and feel back in control. Sometimes by making life changes and reducing stress, anxiety may naturally reduce over time and get better. To learn 10 Great Tips on How to Manage Anxiety, you may like to download our free eBook we’ve prepared for you – packed with practical strategies to help manage anxiety.