dealing with anxiety attacks

By Joshua Levine

You are about to speak before a large group of people at work. Your palms are sweaty and your heart is racing. Looking through your notes one last time, you feel butterflies in your stomach and notice your throat tightening up. As you approach the podium, your mind begins to race. You mutter a few incomprehensible sentences, and then you go blank. You stare at the audience feeling a detachment from your body only to realize that you are making a complete idiot of yourself in front of a room full of people.

Most of us have experienced this sort of anxiety attack at some point in our lives. Experiencing anxiety while speaking before a large group of people or before taking a plane is normal, but it can get out of hand. If you or anybody you know has ever had the urge to freeze, gasp or run away in terror over the most trivial of things, now you will finally understand the causes of and treatments for anxiety attacks.

what are anxiety attacks?

The term "anxiety attack" is rather vague and misleading and often refers to "panic attacks." Panic attacks are a subcategory of anxiety disorders, which include different anxieties like social anxiety, but for the sake of argument, let us simply call them all anxiety attacks.

An anxiety attack is an extreme form of uneasiness, while panic attacks are more severe and traumatizing forms of fright. Such attacks are often the result of uncontrollable fears, i.e. phobias. Both can interfere with everyday life. Sufferers of anxiety attacks can plan daily routines around the object of fear.

Though most of us experience anxiety on a daily basis, certain people cannot control their uneasiness. Today, public speaking is the most prevalent type of anxiety attacks -- maybe because people are forced to speak before large groups more than ever before -- but anxieties can range from talking to the opposite sex to being forced to make a left turn while driving.

why should we care?

It seems that this problem only aggravates as society progresses, with anxiety and panic attacks leading the way. While experiencing an anxiety attack, besides making a complete jackass of oneself, the condition affects our lives in many ways. Here are some interesting facts about anxiety attacks:

- 20-30 million Americans have some form of anxiety disorder;
- Panic attacks alone affect up to 6 million Americans;
- Anxiety disorders lead to lower work productivity and absenteeism;
- Women are more affected by anxiety attacks than men;
- Untreated anxiety disorders cost the US economy $42 billion each year;
- According to the Anxiety Disorder Association of America (ADAA), single poor males have more chances of developing an anxiety disorder; and
- Stressed individuals might have a higher chance of developing panic attacks and anxiety disorders.

There are three schools of thought that explain the causes of anxiety attacks.


All humans have fears coded into their genes. It's what ensures we as a species carry on. In times of yore, the biggest, burliest and most importantly, courageous males did not always thrive. Sometimes running away was a good thing, especially if you had a saber-tooth tiger running after you. It didn't impress the ladies, but after a display of shameless cowardice, you were still around to get the brave one's girl.

Having said that, the biological perspective believes that being afraid of spiders or talking in front of large crowds is just nature's way of making sure nothing bad happens to us. The perspective in question also believes that some people might have a chemical imbalance in the brain (where else?) that can cause abnormal fear. Wade Duck from Garfield and Friends would be a prime example of that.


Behaviorists believe that certain behavioral patterns teach us to act in a certain way. Little girls, for instance, are taught to be afraid of boys at a young age because little boys like to be mean to little girls. This can be carried over to adulthood, and some behaviorists will justify that this is why men can't pick up women in bars.


The psychodynamic theory believes that some fears are rooted in child abuse. Such fears can be forgotten only to resurface later on in life.

are you having an anxiety attack?

Knowing what anxiety attack symptoms encompass can prevent some embarrassing moments. If feeling crappy isn't enough, some physical signs can alert others of your anxiety and bring more attention to your distress. Here are a few anxiety attack symptoms:

- Heart palpitations;
- Hyperventilation;
- Indigestion;
- Involuntary touching of the face and limbs;
- Sensitivity to light and sound;
- Excessive perspiration;
- Trembling; and my favorite ...
- Diarrhea.


Most treatments are simple and do not require professional help. Here is how one can overcome anxiety attacks:

don't think before an attack

Anxiety attacks can sometimes develop from the simple fear of experiencing an attack. One might recognize that a particular situation can cause an anxiety attack, and this alone can trigger it. This can lead to some pretty strange, even funny behavior, but it can also lead to more serious disorders. Agoraphobia -- the fear of public places -- is a result of over-anticipating anxiety attacks.

think during an attack

When an anxiety attack actually hits, people do not realize what they are thinking or doing. One should understand that the feelings during an attack are "normal." This will help trivialize and rationalize the experience. Seeing yourself from a third-person perspective depersonalizes the condition and lowers its effects.


Breathing is vital to fighting anxiety. One must learn to breathe during an attack. Take deep breaths when experiencing an attack and concentrate on each inhalation. Taking long breaths takes emphasis away from the attack itself.

do not take medication or do drugs for too long

Many drugs can mask anxiety disorders, but none cure them. Furthermore, some drugs can be addictive. Anxiety disorders are not caused by a medical condition. Most are a result of repressed ulterior issues and angst, so learn to understand yourself instead of thinking drugs will resolve the problem.

you're not alone

Anxieties are a part of life, so don't overreact when experiencing them and do not anticipate them -- that alone can cause anxiety attacks. Do not take drugs to cure anxiety and panic attacks. Learning what triggers them can be a good opportunity to get to know oneself, so in a sense, anxiety attacks are not all that bad.



the roots of anxiety

1. All children are born to grow, to develop, to live, to love, and to articulate their needs and feelings for their self-protection;

2. For their development, children need to the respect and protection of adults who take them seriously, love them, and honestly help them to become oriented in the world;

3. When these vital needs are frustrated and children are, instead, abused for the sake of the adults' needs by being exploited, beaten, punished, taken advantage of, manipulated neglected, or deceived without the intervention of any witness, then their integrity will be lastingly impaired;

4. The normal reactions to such injury should be anger and pain. Since children in this hurtful kind of environment are forbidden to express their anger, however, and since it would be unbearable to experience their pain all alone, they are compelled to suppress their feelings, repress all memory of the trauma, and idealize those guilty of the abuse. Later they will have no memory of what was done to them;

5. Dissociated from the original cause, their feelings of anger, helplessness, despair, longing, anxiety, and pain will find expression in destructive acts against others (criminal behavior, mass murder) or against themselves (drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, psychic disorders, suicide);

6. If these people become parents, they will then often direct acts of revenge for their mistreatment in childhood against their own children, whom they use as scapegoats. Child abuse is still sanctioned -- indeed, held in high regard -- in our society as long as it is defined as child-rearing. It is a tragic fact that parents beat their children in order to escape the emotions from how they were treated by their own parents;

7. If mistreated children are not to become criminals or mentally ill, it is essential that at least once in their life they come in contact with a person who knows without any doubt that the environment, not the helpless, battered child, is at fault. In this regard, knowledge or ignorance on the part of society can be instrumental in either saving or destroying a life. Here lies the great opportunity for relatives, social workers, therapists, teachers, doctors, psychiatrists, officials and nurses to support the child and believe in her or him;

8. Till now, society has protected the adult and blamed the victim. It has been abetted in its blindness by theories, still in keeping with the pedagogical principles of our great-grandparents, according to which children are viewed as crafty creatures, dominated by wicked drives, who invent stories and attack innocent parents or desire them sexually. In reality, children tend to blame themselves for their parents' cruelty and to absolve their parents, whom they invariably love of all responsibility;

9. For some years now, it has been possible to prove, through new therapeutic methods, that repressed traumatic experiences of childhood are stored up in the body and, though unconscious, exert an influence even in adulthood. In addition, electronic testing of the fetus has revealed a fact previously unknown to most adults -- that a child responds to and learns both tenderness and cruelty from the very beginning;

10. In the light of this new knowledge, even the most absurd behavior reveals its formerly hidden logic once the traumatic experiences of childhood need no longer remain shrouded in darkness;

11. Our sensitization to the cruelty with which children are treated, until now commonly denied, and to the consequences of such treatment will as a matter of course bring an end to the perpetuation of violence from generation to generation; and

12. People whose integrity has not been damaged in childhood, who were protected, respected, and treated with honesty by their parents, will be -- both in their youth and in adulthood -- intelligent, responsive, empathic and highly sensitive. They will take pleasure in life and will not feel any need to kill or even hurt others or themselves. They will use their power to defend themselves, not to attack others. They will not be able to do otherwise than respect and protect those weaker than themselves, including their own children, because this is what they have learned from their own experience, and because it is this knowledge (and not the experience of cruelty) that has been stored up inside them from the beginning.

It will be inconceivable to such people that earlier generations had to build up a gigantic war industry in order to feel comfortable and safe in this world. Since it will not be their unconscious drive in life to ward off intimidation experienced at a very early age, they will be able to deal with attempts at intimidation in their adult life more rationally and creatively.

- from For Your Own Good, by Alice Miller


Learn more about Alice Miller
Feeling suicidal?
Illness: a new perspective
The biochemistry of hope
Find your own North Star


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