When time stands still: Experts speak on how to identify and handle anxiety attacks

South First spoke to mental health experts on how to identify anxiety and sought some tips to deal with anxiety attacks.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Apr 25, 2024 | 7:07 AMUpdatedApr 25, 2024 | 3:00 PM

Anxiety might also lead to behavioural changes like avoiding certain situations and seeking validation from others more than usual. (Representational pic/Creative Commons)

That night, as time tick-tocked into what she felt as yet another dawn of no hope, Priya hated and cursed herself.

A sudden fear overcame her as she lay restless on the bed. Her heart raced even as her breathing became laborious. She shut her eyes hoping to get a much-needed sleep, but a cold sweat kept the young woman awake.

Lying supine, Priya (name changed) felt her tired limbs becoming heavier, an unknown chill creeping all over her. She tried to breathe normally — the more the woman tried, the more difficult it became.

She stared at the ceiling, seeing only the darkness, dense and overpowering.

stress can lead to OAB

Stress and Anxiety can lead to OAB /Creative Commons

Priya wanted to talk to anyone who would listen to her. However, the world around her had slipped into a deep slumber in the progressing night, leaving her alone in the directionless darkness. Her eyes searched for a ray of hope that never came. She hoped for a shell, a cocoon, into which she could withdraw herself and shut the world away.

Life was different for Priya. Confident and outgoing, she was a chirpy young marketing professional, who never failed in meeting her goals at work and in life. Her colleagues viewed her with envied respect and enjoyed her company. Life then was beautiful, the pieces falling into place.

All those good things ended a few months ago after she had joined a prominent marketing firm that seemed to offer better career prospects.

On that night, she firmly believed all was lost. Fighting back the tears welling up, she silently cursed herself. Time kept ticking without a pause, and irreversible with a steady pace.

But in her bedroom, Priya felt as if time, patina-coated and musty, had stopped eternally.

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The turning point

Day one was hectic but to Priya’s liking in the new organisation. She completed the joining formalities and met her colleagues, friendly and helpful.

As days passed by, she noticed her colleagues tensed and glued to their work though they never hesitated to give her a friendly nod whenever she walked in. Priya soon found the reason.

The boss’s micromanaging style was new to her. He questioned every decision made, demanded updates on the assigned tasks multiple times a day, and even made her rework the assignments.

Priya soon felt as if lost in a foreign land where she was ignorant of its culture and customs.

The constant scrutiny and micromanaging made Priya repeatedly review — and at times redo — the work, which ate up much of her time. Even at home, she kept thinking of the work, fearing that she might have made some mistake.

Also Read: Why does this software engineer check her email over 300 times?

The fallout

Self-doubt has crept in. It affected Priya’s confidence and performance. Anxiety kept her awake at night, as she kept recalling the emails sent and work done, fearing she had committed some mistake by oversight, and the possible criticism she would face the next day.

The sleepless nights took a toll on her. Priya reported to work tired and sleepy. She gradually became aloof, silent, and moody.

The dark circles under her puffy eyes that lost the sparkle it once had, hid behind the concealer and foundation whenever she stepped out. She did not want to be questioned. She did not want others to notice what she had been going through.

Priya succeeded in hiding the tell-tale signs. However, stress affected her productivity. The constant fear of making mistakes became paralysing. She doubted her ability and did not feel like working anymore.

One morning, after a tense review meeting where the boss dissected every slide of Priya’s presentation, the stress peaked.

Her heart started pounding, her stomach began to ache, and breathlessness coupled with a slight bout of dizziness clouded her thoughts.

Realising that there was nothing physically wrong with her, Priya visited a mental health professional. She was diagnosed to be under a bout of anxiety attack.

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Perceived doom

Priya’s case was not an aberration, Dr Preethi Galgali, a mental health expert at Manipal Hospital, told South First.

“Anxiety is characterised by a feeling of anticipated dread or fear of doom and gloom that affects the individual functioning at work, home, and in social interactions,” she explained.

Dr Galgali said in several instances the tendency was towards avoiding the trigger which may be in the form of social interaction (social anxiety) or specific phobias, like the fear of insects, dogs, snakes, etc.

“During Covid-19, we termed it as ‘coronanxiety’  — the fear of catching the coronavirus and the inability to cope with anxiety. Intense anxiety may result in panic attacks such as breathlessness, palpitations, passing out, intense headache, stomach ache, etc.,” she elaborated.

Doctors explained that anxiety should be differentiated from cardiac arrhythmias, drug reactions, caffeine addiction, and hyperthyroidism. All symptoms required an evaluation by a physician.

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Identifying anxiety

Doctors added that physiological and psychological symptoms should be separately analysed.

Neha Cadabam, Executive Director at Cadabams Hospitals, told South First that doctors look for breathlessness, heaviness in the chest, nausea, and dizziness to identify anxiety.

“Anxiety attack can also lead to lack of focus, irritability, and tension,” she said.

Physical symptoms might include noticeable shaking of the limbs, general fatigue, stomach pain, and constipation or diarrhoea. Psychological symptoms could be excessive worry, difficulty in focusing, unusual anger, inability to relax, or having trouble sleeping or feeling restless.

Anxiety might also lead to behavioural changes like avoiding certain situations and seeking validation from others more than usual.

Also, one could go through random emotional reactions like worrying persistently that something bad was imminent, and experience panic attacks followed by chest pain, palpitation, and shortness of breath, among other symptoms.

Also Read: Viral advice of a Hyderabad doctor on work-life balance

Dealing with anxiety

Neha Cadabam listed a few practical ways to deal with anxiety:

  • The 333 rule involves naming three things you can see, three sounds you can hear, and interacting with three things you can touch.
  • Identifying trigger(s) is another important way to deal with anxiety. Triggers can be different for different people.
  • Various stressors in life can trigger anxiety. Once identified, it is easier to deal with the anxiety.
  • Being a part of support groups. Realise that you are not alone. It helps to learn from the narratives of each other.
  • Taking help from a mental health professional.
  • Journaling to identify patterns of anxiety episodes, triggers, and coping mechanisms.

Mary George, a Psychologist from Bengaluru, too, offered help:

  • Breathe slowly until you feel calm.
  • Focus on the “here” and “now”.
  • De-catastrophise by focusing on what is under your control/what you can do.
  • Gradually learn to become aware of negative thinking and consciously nurture realistic thinking.
  • Nurture a healthy work-life balance incorporating sources of meaningful happiness.

(Edited by Majnu Babu).