In my last article for GoodTherapy.org, we discussed how anxiety in and of itself is not life threatening. It is important to separate this from the experience of the individual undergoing a panic reaction. When you are experiencing anxiety, it may feel serious or even life threatening. Your heart may race, you may have multiple thoughts going on at the same time, and your chest may feel tight and restrictive as you gasp for air. It certainly does not feel pleasant.
When you are experiencing a panic reaction and think you are going to die, try to remind yourself that you will not die from the panic itself. Keep telling yourself, over and over, that you will not actually die. This can help slow down your mind so you can focus on things you have more control over: your thoughts and reactions.
So, then, is anxiety just in your head? Does having a consistently elevated heart rate and pulse day after day not affect you in the long term? Is a lifetime of experiencing anxiety not detrimental to your health?
Anxiety is not just in your head, as many people who do not experience anxiety believe. It is easy to minimize the significance of an individual having a panic reaction because, to the outside observer, it may seem like something “trivial” or “an overreaction” to a situation. Anxiety is irrational in nature. Even so, it impacts the person experiencing anxiety as if it is a real threat.
When anxiety occurs, it triggers the sympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for preparing your body for physical or mental activities. It triggers your fight-or-flight response by increasing blood flow, dilating pupils, accelerating heart rate and breathing, and increasing blood pressure and perspiration. It is hard to write off these changes in your body as a false alarm. When your body responds in this manner, it can amplify your anxiety, which in turn can signal the sympathetic system to release even more chemicals. It is important to remember that chemicals are released in the body to prepare for the “battle” even if that battle never comes.
Your body has just gone through a panic reaction. Your muscles feel exhausted and you feel drained. Once the sympathetic system relaxes, your body will resume its regular functioning.
After experiencing a panic reaction, the person with anxiety may spend enormous amounts of time worrying about another panic reaction happening again. The person may feel as if he or she must prepare for the next “battle,” but many people simply worry about another occurrence and never develop a plan of action. This fear of recurrence can lead the person to avoid places and things that create worry. When the individual limits where he or she can go or what he/she can do, the person begins a cycle of anxiety that can have long-term effects on his/her life and health.
According to Harvard Health Publications, “evidence suggests that people with anxiety … are at greater risk for developing a number of chronic medical conditions,” such as heart disease and gastrointestinal issues. Symptoms of these medical conditions can increase the risk of death.
Knowing that prolonged exposure to anxiety reactions impacts our bodies, it is important to find ways to minimize the effects of anxiety on our lives and our overall health. The good news is that anxiety is highly responsive to treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to work well at helping individuals with anxiety manage it better. If you are struggling with anxiety, find a therapist in your area who specializes in CBT and start taking control.
Remember, again, that panic reactions will not kill you. Calm yourself as best you can and then look for strategies to help manage your anxiety more effectively. Even though the immediate reaction of panic, in and of itself, won’t kill you, the cumulative effect of panic on your body can take a toll.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Teresa Collett, PsyD, therapist in Silverdale, Washington
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.