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Coping with Anxiety Attacks - Sarah's Story

By Krissi Maarx

Sarah left her office for the day on the verge of tears, wishing she had found the courage to ask her boss for the raise she desperately needed - and deserved. Her husband had been laid off from work two months before, and she knew if she didn't get this promotion soon, they stood no chance of paying their overdue bills before shutoff. Imagining what their lives would be like without hot water, and without enough food to feed their family, Sarah anticipated the worst. She hadn't expected that she would soon be coping with anxiety attacks in addition to this immense stress, though.

The anxiety that Sarah initially experienced was perfectly healthy and normal; her mind was alerting her to the fact that she had to do something (ask for her raise) to avoid the danger of going without life's necessities.

It was 3:40 p.m. when Sarah pulled out of the parking lot to head home. Her palms began sweating and slipping from the steering wheel. As a cold chill travelled her spine, she suddenly felt detached from the world, as if she had no control over her surroundings - or over herself. Sarah's car veered across the centerline into oncoming traffic, but she jerked the wheel back to the right - and watched wide-eyed and afraid as her car rapidly approached the guardrail.

When coping with anxiety attacks it's helpful to recognize the onset of symptoms. Sarah's sweaty palms and anticipation of worst-case scenarios were symptoms of anxiety, triggered by her body's fight-or-flight response. The cold chill and sense of detachment were the onset of panic, of which the exact cause is unknown.

Sarah slammed on the brakes, and a truck swerved around her blasting its horn. She had missed the guardrail by mere inches, and the truck had just missed her rear bumper. Nausea swept over her as she gasped for air, but she couldn't catch her breath. Clenching the door handle, she trembled and wept as the car's interior swirled around her. It was 3:50 p.m., and Sarah feared that she was dying. Coping with anxiety attacks is frightening, especially when they can be mistaken for heart attacks.

A panic attack happens rapidly, generally peaking within 10 minutes. In addition to the anxiety attack symptoms that Sarah experienced, some people may lose sensation in their bodies or feel that they can't get a grip on reality. Deep breathing can reduce these symptoms, as can repetition of a positive affirmation that everything will be okay, though neither comes easily under panic.

At 4:15 p.m., Sarah's breathing stabilized. Her head throbbed with pain, but her mind was blank. She was sleepy, and wanted out of the car. Standing alongside the busy roadway, she felt incapable of driving and called a friend to pick her up. Later that evening Sarah's friend encouraged her to call a doctor, and she did.

Coping with anxiety attacks is more than just overcoming the symptoms of panic; it is dealing with the aftermath of an episode, as well as managing the fear that another one will occur. Sarah's panic attack had subsided in 25 minutes, which is within the typical timeframe that these symptoms last, but the surge of adrenaline from her fight-or-flight response left her feeling mentally and physically exhausted. Because this episode occurred in her car and nearly caused an accident, there was an increased chance afterward of her feeling anxious or having a panic attack while driving.

With professional therapy and anxiety self-help methods, coping with anxiety attacks would become increasingly easier for Sarah. Immediate help reduced the chance of her developing a phobia for driving, and relaxation techniques helped her manage the anxiety associated with her sources of stress.

Source: Mayo Clinic staff. (2010, March 25). Panic attacks and panic disorder. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/panic-attacks/DS00338/DSECTION=causes

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