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Anxiety and panic attacks

Anxiety is a feeling of panic that something's not right or that something bad's going to happen. Here you can learn more about anxiety, panic attacks and some tools to manage them.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry or unease. Most people experience anxiety at some time or other in their lives. But if your anxiety feels overwhelming, you might want help with managing it.

Most of us feel anxious from time to time. It's really common. For example, you might feel anxious before taking an exam because you really want to do well. 

Some people experience anxiety more often and more intensely. You might suddenly feel anxious and not understand why, or feel anxious about everyday things that didn't make you anxious in the past.

When anxiety feels overwhelming it can stop you doing things you want or need to and cause difficulties in your life. This can often be a problem for people who have experienced rape, sexual abuse or another form of sexual violence.

What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety can feel different for everyone, but here are some common things people with anxiety experience:

  • A feeling of nervousness or unease.
  • A feeling that something is wrong or not quite right.
  • A feeling that something bad is going to happen.
  • Feeling jittery, like you can't keep still.
  • Fast-beating heart.
  • Feeling irritated / irritable.
  • Feeling sick.
  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy.
  • Feeling worried or panicked.
  • Having trouble concentrating and/or sleeping.
  • Heavy-breathing or hyperventilating.
  • Sweating.

Feeling very anxious or panicky right now?

Try this breathing exercise:

  1. Focus on your breath.
  2. Inhale through your nose and out through your mouth.
  3. Place your hands on your belly.
  4. Watch as your hands move up and down as you breathe.

Please stop straight away if this exercise makes you feel worse or unsafe.

Info

Find more exercises/techniques to try

Exercises and techniques like this can help if you're feeling overwhelmed, upset or scared, or if you're experiencing flashbacks, panic attacks, self-harm urges or dissociation.

Managing anxiety

We have suggestions below of things you can try to help you feel less anxious.

Identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts

Our thoughts can contribute to our anxiety.

Although we can't always control our thoughts, we can try to challenge them if they're negative or unhelpful. 

Find out more about challenging unhelpful thoughts.

Grounding

'Grounding' is a term we use for techniques that can help us focus on the present, and stop feelings of anxiety snowballing. 

Find out more about grounding.

Breathing

Taking slow and deep breaths can help you stay calm and manage anxiety. 

Try this breathing exercise:

  1. Focus on your breath.
  2. Inhale through your nose and out through your mouth.
  3. Place your hands on your belly.
  4. Watch as your hands move up and down as you breathe.

Please stop straight away if this exercise makes you feel worse or unsafe.

Many people find that this makes them feel calmer – however, if it makes you feel more panicked or anxious, stop for now.

Relaxation and self-care

When you feel anxious, you can try to calm yourself by doing something comforting or relaxing.

Go to our self-care section for suggestions.

Problem-solving

Sometimes we are anxious about certain problems. One way to manage our anxiety around these problems is to try and identify possible solutions.

Identify a time in the day that you can spend 20 minutes problem-solving. If you think of a problem outside this time, write it down and come back to it during your problem-solving time. This can help reduce the amount of time you spend worrying in the day.

You can download this resource to guide you through each step:

  1. Identify a problem and write down a list of possible solutions.
  2. Choose a solution from this list. If you're finding it hard to pick a solution, use a 'pros and cons' list against each of your ideas.
  3. Break your solution down into manageable steps.
  4. Try your solutions and review. 

Avoiding avoidance

When situations make us anxious, it is tempting to avoid them. Although this makes a lot of sense, it's not always helpful. It can actually maintain and increase our anxiety in the longer term.

If we always avoid uncomfortable situations, we reinforce the idea that they are too difficult for us to cope with. This can mean we carry on feeling anxious. But if we expose ourselves to these situations, we can learn that we can cope, or that the situation is not as bad as we imagined. This can reduce our anxiety. 

Instead of avoiding situations that make you anxious, you might want to try confronting them for a small amount of time. This might show that you can cope, or that the situation is not as bad as you thought.

  1. Start by writing a list of situations that make you anxious.
  2. Group them into situations that cause you a little anxiety, a medium amount and high anxiety.
  3. When you feel ready, confront the situation.
  4. It may be that the longer you stay in the situation, the more your anxiety will reduce, so try to stay in the situation until you feel your anxiety lessen.
  5. Try to repeat this exercise everyday if you can, and gradually move from situations that cause you a small amount of anxiety to situations that evoke a stronger feeling of anxiety. 

You can use this downloadable resource to help you.

Keep a diary to record situations you confronted and how anxious they made you feel. In the future you can look back and compare how anxious you feel in these situations before and after challenging your avoidance. 

Panic attacks

A panic attack is an intense period of heightened anxiety. Recognising and understanding panic attacks can help you feel less overwhelmed by them.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an intense period of heightened anxiety.

You might experience them suddenly and without warning, or you might feel them gradually building.

They can be very distressing. You might feel terrified and as if you're losing control. It's common to feel sick, dizzy, weak, and to hyperventilate. Your panic attack could last minutes or hours, but it will pass. 

Although panic attacks are frightening they are not usually dangerous.

What can help during a panic attack?

Recognising a panic attack and understanding what it is can help you feel less overwhelmed by it. Understanding panic as a symptom of the 'fight or flight' response can help you recognise and make sense of your body's reactions.

When you're having a panic attack:

  • Tell yourself you're having a panic attack, that the feeling will pass and that you're not in danger.
  • Do whatever makes you feel safer and more comfortable. This might be curling up in bed, wrapping yourself in a blanket or, if in public, finding somewhere private like a bathroom.
  • Take slow and deep breaths from the belly. Put your hand on your stomach and breath deeply, expanding your stomach, pushing your hand out. Then slowly exhale and repeat. 

Learning to ground yourself can also help you manage panic attacks by focussing on the present.

Find out more about 'grounding'.

What can help after a panic attack?

Panic attacks can be scary. Try to take it easy and look after yourself after experiencing one.

Do something comforting and relaxing. You might want to be around people or prefer to sit quietly for a while. 

See our section on self-care to learn more about looking after yourself.

Telling someone you spend a lot of time with about your panic attacks can be helpful. You can tell them what they are like and how you cope with them so that they can recognise when you are experiencing one and help you. For example, if there's a phrase you use to ground yourself they could repeat this to you.

Struggling with anxiety or panic attacks?

You can talk to us about how you're feeling.

You can contact one of our helplines or your local Rape Crisis centre for more help and support.

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