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How to get a sudden spike in anxiety under control

Whether you live with an anxiety disorder or have found the events of 2020 affecting your mood, managing your mental health is more important than ever. Experiencing a sudden spike in anxiety is a common issue—one that’s being experienced by more and more people.

Tonya Crombie, Ph.D., author of Stop Worrying About Your Anxious Child, points to a poll released by the American Psychiatric Association that reveals that “62% of Americans feel more anxious than they did at this time last year. That marks a sizable increase over APA polls of the past three years, in which the number has ranged between 32% and 39%.” 

“When you consider the significant stressors brought on by a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, social unrest, bitter political divisions, and a contested presidential election,” Crombie says, “it is completely understandable why so many more people are feeling more anxious than ever before.”  

Here, learn what causes a sudden onset of anxiety, and how can it be managed.

What causes sudden onset of anxiety?

A sudden onset of anxiety can be triggered by a plethora of things—from a major event, like a death in the family, to everyday stressors, such as work or budget worries—but sometimes it can be caused by seemingly nothing at all or issues we aren’t aware of. 

“Our brains are designed to monitor for danger and let us know when these signs appear,” says Karin Kassab, MA, psychologist and CEO of Clarity Counseling Center. “Although it can feel like it at times, anxiety is not your enemy. It’s your brain trying to keep you safe. Think about your anxiety as a security system that’s just a little too sensitive.” 

Abrupt feelings of nervousness and apprehension are often caused by a specific anxiety trigger. “It could be a conversation or a place or a smell that triggers anxiety,” says Silvi Saxena, MSW, LSW, a licensed therapist at Choosing Therapy. “It can be a result of focusing thoughts on something that is stressful and worrisome, something that doesn’t have a solution or worrying about worst case scenarios. Major life events can trigger a series of anxiety attacks and it can become easy to get into a pattern of negative thinking, which worsens anxiety.” As a result, it’s crucial to try to understand your anxiety triggers, in order to find ways to manage it.

Can someone suddenly develop anxiety?

Unfortunately, anxiety can affect anyone at any time, and the often sudden onset can be disconcerting. “Anxiety disorders are one of the most commonly reported mental health concerns,” Kassab explains. “In fact, 1 in 4 people experience an anxiety disorder at some point during their life.”

It’s worth noting that anxiety can come and go suddenly, especially if it’s linked to a difficult event or situation. “A sudden onset of anxiety can occur when something extremely stressful is happening unexpectedly, or when there is physical pain in the body, physical stress, of other kinds of severe mental stress,” Saxena says. 

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Jared Heathman, MD, explains that “while anxiety can be triggered by certain stressful stimuli, it can also be random and equally debilitating.” Either way, there are things you can do to manage an anxiety or panic attack when it starts.

Licensed clinical psychologist Aaron Weiner, Ph.D., says, “Anxiety spikes are an activation of the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ system, a hardwired physiological reaction to when we think we’re in danger in some way.” Because of that, we can anticipate some of the following symptoms of a panic attack

  • Heart palpitations or a pounding heartbeat
  • Becoming hot or dizzy
  • Unexplained sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or tensing
  • Feeling like you lack control of a situation

RELATED: Anxiety attack vs. panic attack

How can I calm my anxiety fast?

Medication is an option for long-term anxiety. But, they are not always an instant fix. Anti-anxiety medications, such as Ativan, Klonopin, or Xanax, can work quickly—within minutes or hours. Antidepressant medications, sometimes used to treat anxiety, can take a few weeks to reach maximum effectiveness. As Heathman explains, “Medication can take much longer to work as medication must be ingested, digested, absorbed, and then transferred in the bloodstream.” 

If you’re experiencing anxiety for the first time or you’re having an unexpected spike of anxiety, there are some techniques you can employ in the moment to help with your developing symptoms. “Sudden onset anxiety is best controlled with relaxation techniques,” Heathman says, which “can work instantly after being employed.” Some calming strategies include:

  • Deep breathing: “Deep breathing is very effective as it helps to calm the autonomic nervous system,” explains Saxena. There are lots of relaxing deep breathing techniques. Start by inhaling through your nose, and trying to fill your belly with air. Then, exhale through your mouth, and repeat three to 10 times.
  • Meditation: “Mindfulness—remembering that the anxious state is temporary and will pass. Move into an environment that allows you to use all your senses, this helps reduce symptoms of anxiety,” says Saxena. There are many mindfulness techniques that can help anxiety from listening to guided recordings to coloring mandalas while focusing on the present moment.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: When you feel anxious, it’s likely your muscles tense up. This technique involves tensing certain muscles as you breathe in, then relaxing them as you breathe out to relieve stress.
  • Visualization strategies: Use your imagination to induce calmness. Pick an image that makes you feel soothed, like your cozy bed, or a beach. Then picture it when anxiety takes hold.
  • Biofeedback training: This usually involves wearing a device that pairs with an app. It notices when your breathing or heart rate spikes, and offers breathing exercises to help slow it back down to normal levels.
  • Listening to music: Some research has found that listening to music can reduce cortisol (aka the stress hormone) levels.
  • Exercise: Kassab explains that regular, moderate exercise is an “instantly gratifying anxiety reduction tool.” Meaning, a quick workout can immediately reduce anxious feelings.

All of these techniques work by changing your brain’s focus, so that anxiety symptoms can pass. One of the keys to calming anxiety is also recognizing when and why it is happening. “If you can sense that it is spiking,” Saxena explains, “then you can challenge yourself to use the same thought pattern to understand that it is a passing feeling.”

What’s next?

“Anyone can feel anxious at times and it’s even more important to realize that feeling anxious does not mean something is wrong with you,” Crombie says. 

If you’re concerned about worsening anxiety, or a sudden onset of anxiety, then it’s important to consult a medical professional. Heathman suggests that you seek a consultation when your anxiety doesn’t resolve with continued practice of relaxation techniques. A person experiencing anxiety may be prescribed medication or referred for therapy.

Kassab also reminds patients that living during a global pandemic is understandably stressful for most people, and “increased anxiety during these stressors is a normal reaction to the abnormal situation.” However, if relaxation and breathing techniques, exercise and mindfulness, aren’t helping curb your anxiety, you should consult a medical professional who will advise you on the next steps to managing the condition.

For more information on seeking help or treatment or anxiety support, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the nearest emergency room. Don’t be afraid to seek emergency care when your symptoms are severe!