If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, then you know some of the common symptoms: racing thoughts, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and the frightening sense of being completely overwhelmed. But anxiety is also more than just stress — as a mental health issue for nearly 40 million Americans, anxiety can also lead to panic attacks, full-blown depression, and even physical illness.
Trish Barillas, life coach and author of A Face of Anxiety, knows this firsthand. Her struggles with anxiety/panic disorder began at the age of five, and she’s spent the past decade helping clients manage anxiety, relationships, breakups, and career advancement. We spoke to Barillas about what it’s like to live with anxiety, why certain triggers can make anxiety worse, and three actions to take when you feel anxiety coming on.
Is anxiety real, or “all in your head”?
Anxiety is real to those who suffer from it, and it can be genetic or a learned coping mechanism gone wrong. What makes people question anxiety is the fact that we tend to instigate the triggers that set ourselves off.
How do you know if you have anxiety, or if your level of worry or stress is “normal”?
The biggest warning sign of severe anxiety is when you start to notice you aren’t able to live your life in your normal way. When the quality of your life is changing — meaning you may be having trouble sleeping, concentrating, overeating or not eating, irritability, digestive issues, and obsessive thinking — you could be experiencing bouts of extreme anxiety.
Sure, we all have worries and daily stressors with work, life, and family. However, you know yourself best. When you can feel the shift with yourself — most people call it “feeling off” — for a long period of time, and it’s getting worse, then I suggest you take measures to look into coping with anxiety. Anxiety comes on heavy and can linger for long periods of time. Some people will try to self-medicate to avoid the uncomfortable feelings. Take inventory of your mental health and ask yourself: “Is this my norm or is something happening that is deeper within me?”
We all have worries and daily stressors with work, life, and family. However, you know yourself best. The biggest warning sign of severe anxiety is when you start to notice you aren’t able to live your life in your normal way.
What is living with anxiety like?
Living with anxiety is different for everyone. For me, it feels as if I’m seated in a rollercoaster ticking up with all that adrenaline pumping through my system, waiting to make it over the hill. However, I’m not on a rollercoaster; I could be sitting at dinner or trying to get settled for bed. It feels like I’m losing control of my own mentality, and that’s scary. And it can take a while before I get over that hill.
What does an anxiety attack feel like? Is it the same for everyone?
In most cases, the mind has tricked the body into a forced irrational response. Most severe reactions are actually panic attacks, which can come in two specific forms: the first is the fear of losing control (“going crazy,” for lack of a better term), and the second is the fear of having a heart attack. Both have anxiety as an underlying condition.
Panic attacks have significant physical symptoms. The body goes into fight or flight mode, so it will eliminate everything from its system; some people will get diarrhea, vomiting, or sweaty palms, and convulsing can also take place.
Can you prevent an anxiety attack before it happens?
I believe you can take precautionary steps to avoid panic attacks from occurring if you know your triggers well enough. Triggers set off that neural brain path you’ve created to send the message to the body that something is wrong. Once you have done the work on yourself to understand your own anxiety, there are many treatment options to make you most comfortable in those situations.
If the attack comes on, for instance, while you’re sleeping or happens too quick to talk yourself down, then I do recommend some form of medication to lessen the attack. Speaking to a medical professional about your anxiety and diagnosis is the first step, so they can make sure you can get the right treatment for your type of anxiety.
Are panic or anxiety attacks dangerous?
Although they are extremely uncomfortable and stressful, anxiety or panic attacks aren’t a medically dangerous threat, in terms of health. The aftermath is harder to get through, as it puts the person in a constant state of worry that it will happen again. To my knowledge, to date, no one has ever died due to anxiety or a panic attack.
How can breathing help with anxiety?
Breathing is the first remedy to use in your anxiety toolkit. Anxiety sufferers tend to be shallow breathers, which means they are cutting off the air supply to their brains, as well as creating problems for their digestive track.
I use a method I call “15 Count to Calm,” whereby you breathe in, pushing your diaphragm out for a five count, then hold in your air for a five count, then exhale for the last five count. I find that the hold of the five count is what helps best when anxiety comes on strong, since you’re trying to break the cycle and get grounded within yourself.
Anxiety is such a misunderstood mental illness. It’s hard for people who don’t suffer from it to understand its effects on the person experiencing it.
Can anxiety be cured?
Since anxiety is so specific to a person’s body and genetic makeup, this is a hard question to answer because it really depends on how you approach it and what outlying variables you’re up against. I feel that people can manage anxiety to a point where they are living the life they want. I don’t believe there is a “cure” per se — some people only experience anxiety during certain points in their lives and others are genetically wired, which could be for life. I strongly believe in strengthening the mind and body in order to live a balanced life.
What are the most common triggers, and what are some you’ve experienced personally?
My triggers seem to be amongst the norm. I have severe travel anxiety, which occurs before and during a trip. There is no way to avoid it, as I travel every three months, but I’ve equipped myself with the tools I need to travel.
My stomach is a huge trigger. If something feels “off” with my digestive system, I start the vicious “what if” cycle in my head. Another trigger is when there are too many people in one location, such as a big sports arena, concert. or space that is confined by a limited number of exits. I’m still working on this one, but it’s gotten better over the past year.
How can you help or support a family member or friend with anxiety?
Just ask what they need, when they may be anxious or having a panic attack, and when they aren’t in that state yet. Anxiety is such a misunderstood mental illness and terms get used incorrectly all the time. It’s hard for people who don’t suffer from it to understand its effects on the person experiencing it.
The best advice I can give to those who are anxiety sufferers is to be open and honest with the ones you love so they can understand you better. Once you figure out what works for you during these moments, share that with the people closest to you.
What are three actions to take when you feel anxiety coming on?
Again, it’s different for everyone, but here are some of my personal saviors:
- Have a playlist that you normally listen to for peace and serenity. Music can be used as an anchor, because hearing something familiar puts your mind in a calmer state.
- Sweat it out! If you can get your heart rate up and release serotonin, this will help break the cycle of your anxious thoughts.
- If you find yourself thinking “what if,” start changing the story you’re telling yourself. Stick to the facts at hand and to your current reality — not in the past or future that your anxiety is trying to trick you into thinking. Make a list of what you’re feeling versus what is actually happening, so you can decipher the difference.
Disclaimer: This interview has been condensed for clarity, and information presented is not intended to replace professional medical or mental health treatment. If you suffer from anxiety or have questions about anxiety, contact your health care provider.