Sudden anxiety attack, can't focus
July 5, 2014 10:37 AM   Subscribe

For no apparent reason, I am suddenly super stressed out and completely unable to concentrate on anything...

I asked two questions a year ago about a sort of identity crisis I was having. The answers were extremely helpful and up until a few days ago I felt like I had gotten over it. I no longer feel any obsessive compulsion to become "great" or to constantly compare myself to others. A few weeks ago, I was very excited to start the summer, and I had drawn up a schedule to ensure that I made some progress studying the things I'm interested in.

Two days ago, however, completely out of the blue, I started worrying again. I feel that it is somehow connected to this prior issue, but the reasons for my worrying aren't exactly clear to me. I think maybe I'm stressing that I'm not doing all this studying "of my own accord". I thought I had cleared this up by resolving to study only a few areas I'm very interested in (modern music and string theory, in particular) with specific goals (composing a piece or being able to understand a certain part of the math), but maybe I hadn't convinced myself that this was really only out of curiosity and not due to my past compulsion. Last year, after several months of thinking, the solution I had come up with was: "It doesn't matter whether I'm mediocre or whether I ever gain recognition for my work; I should just do the things that I'm truly interested in, and not bother to compare myself to others or to stress about the outcome." This was solid in my mind up until two days ago; now I feel like I have to keep rehashing it constantly, like I don't really believe it anymore. (I hope this is making sense.)

I decided to just try and work through it, but I can't actually focus on anything. I spent all of last summer lying around, and I did eventually work through my anxieties, but I had lost so much time... I really don't want that to happen again... Please help!
posted by myitkyina to Human Relations (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It almost sounds like you've already been using the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – but if not, you should give it a try. Sounds like this is the type of situation where CBT might help. And you can do it on your own – you don't need to see a therapist.
posted by alex1965 at 10:46 AM on July 5, 2014

Sometimes we all get anxious, often for no particular reason. My theory is that our brains get bored and start telling us there are saber-tooth tigers hiding in the woods in order to huff some adrenaline.

Anxiety doesn't actually automatically mean something's wrong, and it doesn't have to be a big deal. We can notice ourselves feeling anxious; think, "Huh, that's interesting, my heart's beating kind of fast and my thoughts are racing"; realize that all emotions tend to come and then go; and then just trust that it will go.


Even just typing that made me feel anxious. Taking a few deep breaths, checking in rationally that I'm doing the things that help me keep my anxiety under control (getting enough sleep, exercising, not drinking too much, spending time outside), and then realizing that getting caught up in anxiety about my anxiety is a grand way of staying stuck in anxiety and so choosing, instead, to just let it go -- that all helped.
posted by jaguar at 11:03 AM on July 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

Are you getting enough Vitamin B? When I suddenly find myself stressed for no reason I realise I've forgotten to take bit B supplement for a week or so.
posted by KateViolet at 12:56 PM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

How are you doing on the basics, i.e. are you getting enough sleep, limiting caffeine, eating well, and getting some regular exercise? I've found that focussing on any or all of these things can make a big difference to anxiety in the short term. Taking a good multivitamin also helps.
posted by rpfields at 1:14 PM on July 5, 2014

From what you've described it seems that what you are experiencing is anxiety not an "anxiety attack", assuming you are using the term synonymously with panic attack.
posted by Blitz at 1:35 PM on July 5, 2014

I feel that it is somehow connected to this prior issue, but the reasons for my worrying aren't exactly clear to me

Our mind obsesses when there's some other thing we don't want to think about. So start asking yourself what you could be trying to not think about, to avoid.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:29 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The by no means complete list of things that can cause either panic attacks or a generally higher level of background anxiety, for me: Not getting enough sleep. Sleeping too much. Eating poorly, so probably something in the way of nutrients, but I've never really managed to identify what exactly. Consuming too much caffeine. Taking my Adderall as prescribed, although mostly this is remedied by taking other anxiety-reducing medications concurrently. Not getting enough cardio.

In other words, all sorts of things that happen without regard to the fact that I'm compliant with my medication and generally pretty good these days about the CBT stuff. It comes and goes. You probably can't make it go away entirely forever, and once you accept that, you can ride out the higher-anxiety periods more easily. It's not a thing that gets cured, it's a thing that gets managed, and not always just by thinking differently, although that's an important component.
posted by Sequence at 4:44 PM on July 5, 2014

If you even have the option of "lying around" all summer, I assume you live with your parents or something and are a student/don't have a job? When I was younger and in this situation, lying around in summer also seemed to bring on sudden and unexplained anxiety and not-so-healthy thought patterns and obsessing about specific things (jaguar's description is pretty spot on for me). I have generally always chalked this up to my brain being bored/under-stimulated and having nothing better to do than fixate on random crap, though I don't really know.

Anyway, what worked for me was to fill my days with things that a) got me out of the house, b) at least somewhat stimulated me intellectually, c) involved interacting with other people. Sports can be good for this, as can volunteering. The latter especially — you meet cool people, learn new things, and come away feeling good about yourself and knowing you have done something productive with your day. It can really get you out of our head and give you other things to focus on. It also helps tire you out, so you don't lie awake at night freaking out about things.

Also, if you're the kind of person who tends to find studying something of your own accord difficult (and I'm right there with you, master procrastinator here; this response is me procrastinating, in fact), you might find it easier to accomplish if you have a fuller schedule. Like, I am a writer. Days I have nothing else to but my writing work, I will waste so much time putting it off and distracting myself — food, internet, long showers, walks, you name it. Days I only have a limited window of time to get my writing done, I just sit down and get the hell on with it. Sometimes you need to force that time crunch on yourself.

But also, if your anxiety is seriously affecting your life, go talk to a doctor.
posted by retrograde at 9:46 PM on July 5, 2014

Mindfulness is something that will help you through these situations. (So will Ativan, but you don't need a doctor to prescribe mindfulness).

The short version: be fully aware of here and now. One approach: Clasp your hands together, bend your focus to every sensation each hand is feeling. Don't evaluate the sensations, don't question them or label them or do any other thinking about them other than "My hands feel dry," for example. Eat a small piece of something very slowly, paying attention to how it engages all of your senses, again without evaluating any thoughts that intrude; let them slip by.

Another, extremely calming thing to is called 'ocean breathing.' Sit (or lay) down, close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose, sort of dropping your tongue in your mouth to allow the air to kind of 'whoosh' over your soft palate. As you exhale through your mouth, almost sigh as you do so. This sets up a rhythmic sound in your head like the ocean, and is a very useful tactic for getting through a panic attack. Focus on the breath, not on anything else.

The four-fold breath is also very useful. Breathe in through the nose for a count of four, hold for a count of four, out (controlled and steady but empty your lungs) through the mouth for a count of four, hold for a count of four. Repeat. As you continue your repetitions you'll find yourself counting slower and slower, which will physically relax your body. Focus on the breathing only. If thoughts intrude, let them just pass you by. You can combine this with ocean breathing if you like.

Really, just controlling your breathing period (and I know from personal experience how hard that can be in a panic attack) will help you calm down.

So will telling yourself "This is temporary. This will pass. The things I am feeling right now are transient, and they will be gone soon." See also the Litany against Fear from the Dune novels--a very early/prescient use of the technique. And, still, focus on the breath. Focusing solely on your breathing and allowing all other thoughts to wash over you will help.

"It doesn't matter whether I'm mediocre or whether I ever gain recognition for my work; I should just do the things that I'm truly interested in, and not bother to compare myself to others or to stress about the outcome." This was solid in my mind up until two days ago; now I feel like I have to keep rehashing it constantly, like I don't really believe it anymore. (I hope this is making sense.)

Of course that makes sense, don't worry :) The path to recovery from any illness--mental or physical--is often going to be of the two steps forward one step back variety. Perhaps adopt "I will not compare myself to others. I will not stress about the outcome" as your personal Litany. Again, while focusing on your breathing.

There are probably thousands of meditation techniques; I'm sharing the ones that have helped (and continue to help) in such situations. And they pretty much always return to: focus on your breath. A lot of the time, panic attacks arise from feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated. Focusing on one small thing helps your brain reset, and controlling your breathing helps your body to physically relax. There's a bunch of chemicals surging when you're having an attack, and at the end of the day, you have to ride it out; you have to wait for those chemicals to metabolize. But while you're riding it out, you can train yourself to focus on other things.

But, yes, look up Mindfulness as a therapeutic modality. It's one of the few that doesn't need professional guidance to work. Just be aware. Focus on the breath. Let everything else pass through you without leaving a mark.

And always remember: "I will be okay. This will pass. I will remain here. This is temporary."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:29 AM on July 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

This might be helpful.
posted by DeltaForce at 12:12 PM on July 6, 2014

I don't have that with Vit B the way KateViolet does, but I do have it with my Calcium/Potassium/Magnesium & D3 supplements. (fwiw) I also take 5-HTP which helps me a lot, too.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:50 PM on July 6, 2014

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