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Overcoming an Anxiety Attack: The Five Steps of AWARE

by Cindy Gray

Everyone experiences anxiousness now and then, but people having an anxiety attack (or panic attack) experience feelings of sheer terror.  Physical symptoms may include pressure in the chest, profuse sweating, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, and lightheadedness. While some people fear they might be having a heart attack, others worry they may faint or lose control in some other way.  Not surprisingly, these episodes can affect wellbeing and daily activity.  Becoming more AWARE of the nature of panic attacks can help people get through them and live a happier and healthier life.

The five steps of AWARE can help people get through an anxiety attack more quickly.

1.  Acknowledge and Accept

Acknowledgment and acceptance that panic and fear are setting in are the first steps to overcoming an anxiety attack.  Trying to ignore the experience often results in even more anxiety. 

2.  Wait and Watch

After acknowledging the onset of an anxiety attack, it helps to wait and watch.

Wait

Heightened anxiety inhibits the ability to think, and people often respond with their first instinct, which is to flee from the situation.  Waiting for a few minutes allows people to recover their ability to think and to focus on appropriate action.

Watch

Recording an anxiety attack while it is happening helps transform an individual from victim to observer.  This can have a calming effect, and an anxiety diary helps people better understand triggers and ways to deal with them in the future. 

If an attack happens while driving, people can use a digital recorder or pull over to put the experience in writing.  Individuals should record information like panic level (from 1 to 10), what triggered the panic, how long it lasted, what calming practices were used, and how the attack ended.

Related:  Meditation Rewires Your Brain

3.  Act

For passive situations, waiting and watching may be enough to ride out a panic attack.  People engaged in more active behaviors like driving or public speaking may need to do more work.  The following actions can help calm the mind and body.

Deep Breathing:  Draw a long, slow breath in through the nose.  Fill the lungs from the bottom to top, and hold for a count of three.  Pursing the lips, exhale slowly, and repeat for a 5 to 10 breaths.

Self-Talk:  Self talk helps provide calm through reason.  People can ask themselves what is the worst thing that may happen in the current situation and if it involves danger or merely discomfort.  Recognizing it is okay to be afraid can also be very calming.

Awareness of the Present:  Becoming more aware of the current environment can help people relax.  Focusing on people in other cars, listening to background music in a waiting room, or comparing prices in a store can bring attention back to the present moment and away from worry about what might happen in the immediate future.

Body Relaxation:  Actively tightening and then relaxing the jaw, neck, shoulder, back, and leg muscles can help soothe the body and divert mental focus.

4.  Repeat

While the first three steps often bring an anxiety attack to manageable levels, sometimes they demand repeating.  This is perfectly acceptable.  At first, people may need to go through several cycles, but the process gets easier and more comfortable with practice.

5.  End

Anxiety attacks always end, and a self-reminder of this can be comforting to sufferers.  The best way to bring an attack to completion is to practice each AWARE step with mindfulness and patience.

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