Are you suffering from overwhelming anxiety or stress?
Disclaimer: I am not a trained healthcare professional and the advice offered in this post has come about based on my own personal experiences. If you struggle with anxiety, please seek support from a qualified mental health professional.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety gets a bad write-up these days but according to Psychology Today this ‘extreme apprehension or worry’ is actually just the body’s way of alerting us to a perceived or potential danger in our environment. In some circumstances, this is actually useful. Anxiety is what tells us to slow down and take it easy when driving along a winding road during a nighttime storm. In this instance, our brain is trying to protect us from potential injury if we drive dangerously.
However, anxiety can become excessive, and we can end up over-reacting to mild threats in our environment, or even reacting to threats that don’t exist.
The most severe experience of anxiety is a panic (or anxiety) attack. These ‘attacks’ don’t generally last more than 30 minutes, but during that time it can feel, quite literally, like you’re going to die. They are set off by a particular trigger that causes an excessive reaction. These triggers vary from person to person and depend on what is going on in a person’s life at a particular time.
Working with a trained healthcare professional is the best way of getting to the underlying causes of your anxiety. If you are experiencing anxiety attacks please seek help from a trained professional.
Common Symptoms of a Panic Attack
So what does a panic attack even look and feel like? Perhaps you’ve experienced them yourself and know all too well. Or, perhaps you’re reading this to help out a loved one who you suspect has had attacks in the past. Either way, it’s important to know what to look for when dealing with panic attacks. A panic attack can include these symptoms:
- Feelings of overwhelming panic
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling detached or unreal
- Feeling of losing control
- Trouble Breathing or a choking sensation
- Feeling like you are going to die
- Nausea and or vomiting
- Dry mouth
If you’ve never experienced a panic attack, it can be hard to wrap your head around just how awful they are. It’s so important that those who suffer from them can learn to minimize their effects, and with the help of a mental healthcare professional, potentially stop them altogether.
How to Deal With Panic Attacks
The key to dealing with a panic attack is to get out of your head and into your body. I’m going to outline some techniques that have worked for me (and also a number of people I know) in the midst of a panic attack and also look at some ways to create a healthy lifestyle that may limit the number of attacks you experience.
Step #1. Try to Catch The Signs Early
The best way to deal with panic attacks is to try and prevent them altogether. Granted, this isn’t always possible, but try and ‘catch’ the panic attack early before the worst symptoms of hyperventilation (shallow, fast breathing) appear.
Some of the first early signs that a panic attack may be on the way are:
- Intrusive thoughts (aggressive or unwanted thoughts)
- Negative or catastrophic thinking (excessively fearful thinking when you have no proof of a certain outcome)
- Feelings of overwhelm (this is usually the tipping point towards an actual panic attack)
- Feelings of detachment
Working with a trained healthcare professional to become mindful of your thinking is a great way to learn to catch these early signs.
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If you are starting to feel overwhelmed or panicky, put yourself in a safe environment. One of the best ways I’ve found of dealing with a panic attack is talking to someone you trust. If out and about try and get yourself to a quiet, calm space and call a loved one. If you’re at home, don’t isolate yourself- find a family member or friend to support you.
Once you’ve done that, start to put in place some of the following techniques:
Step #2. Cut Through The Panic Attack
If you’re able to catch the symptoms listed above early, use a couple of the following ideas to prevent the panic attack escalating. If the panic attack has already escalated, you can still use them to try and calm the panic down. It can take some trial and error to discover which techniques work best for you. Everyone is different after all!
1. Eat an Ice Cube
That sounds a little weird, doesn’t it? Why on earth would you want to put a freezing cold lump of ice in your mouth? Reason: it will shock you awake and immediately shift your mind away from the anxiety in your head to the burning cold ice on your tongue. This technique is simple, takes seconds to implement and can have a significant effect in grounding you back in reality.
2. Go for a Walk
During a panic attack, adrenaline is pumping through your body, encouraging the ‘fight or flight’ response. But, chances are, there isn’t actually anything we need to fight or fly away from. So we need to get rid of this adrenalin. One of the best ways I’ve found to expel this excess energy is to walk it out. Yep, bust out those sneakers and start walking up the street.
Not only does this begin to move the excess energy out of your body, but it’s also a good opportunity to practice deep, steady breathing from the belly.
Note: this isn’t a tip I’d recommend if you experience symptoms of dizziness or hyperventilation during a panic attack.
3. Talk to Anyone About Anything
Connecting with a trusted loved one is a great way to ground in mundane reality yourself during a panic attack. Either call or talk to someone supportive about anything– what you ate for dinner last night, your plans for the weekend. It honestly doesn’t matter what you discuss. Just chat with someone about anything distracting that will take your mind away from the feelings of panic and overwhelm.
4. Describe Your Surroundings In Detail Out-loud
Say you’re sitting in the living room when you are gripped by a panic attack. Start describing out-loud the coffee table in front of you… in detail.
- What does the wood-grain feel like against your hand?
- Is it rough or smooth? Hard or soft?
- What about the fabric of the couch you’re sitting on?
- Is it cool, or perhaps warm where your body has been touching it?
- Does the fabric feel smooth against your fingers? And how about the air in the room?
- When you breathe in, does it hit your nostrils as cold or hot?
- And how does it feel when it reaches your lungs?
This mindfulness technique is a fantastic way of engaging your brain to consider what your body can feel… outside of the panic attack. It is also super easy to do. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you describe. What matters is getting out of your head and noticing what you can hear, see, and feel against your skin.
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Anxiety-Kicking Hack: Build A Support Team
You might be thinking ‘these techniques are great and all, but how on earth am I going to remember to actually do them when I’m that anxious??’ And I so agree with you, because, uh, been there, done that!
In the midst of an anxiety attack, it can be hard to think clearly. Your brain isn’t going to logically think ‘oh, I’m feeling extraordinarily anxious. I suppose I should put on my jogging shoes and go for a brisk walk because it will expel my excess energy.’ Yeah, SO not going to happen!
However, if you’ve got an S Team (Support Team) around you who can do the clear thinking for you then you’re onto a winner! You don’t need to remember how to deal with a panic attack. They’re there to remember for you.
So how do choose who should be in this amazing S Team? It can be daunting sharing your anxiety journey with others and the whole world doesn’t need to know. Pick 2-3 supportive, understanding and judgment-free people who will be there for you when you need it most. These could be your partner, best friends or family members.
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Once you’ve established your S Team, share with them your anxiety journey, what you think may bring on your attacks, and how you’re learning to deal with panic attacks. It’s not their job to fix your mental health but they can support you if those scary moments happen to arise again.
It can also be a good idea for you and your S Team to keep a list of anxiety-fighting ideas (like those suggested above) in your phones for those moments when you need support. Your S Team might not always be available to help out, so having a written list of ideas you can whip out by yourself is a great backup.
Step #3: Rest and Recover From the Panic Attack
After the panic attack has passed and you’ve expelled that excess energy, take some quiet time to let your body rest.
Panic attacks are very taxing on the body and mind, so allow yourself to quietly come back to equilibrium again.
Step #4. Manage Your Panic Attacks Long-Term
As I mentioned, dealing with panic attacks isn’t just about in-the-moment management. It’s about prevention. If you do suffer from panic attacks, it is absolutely vital you begin to get to the underlying cause and focus on leading a healthy lifestyle.
1. Seek Help From a Professional
The right mental-health support team can do wonders for managing and preventing panic attacks. There’s nothing shameful about reaching out for support. In fact, it shows incredible self-awareness, bravery, and determination to care for your own health.
Each town and city has its own resources for putting you in touch with the right mental health professional. Either ask your doctor or community support for a recommendation or search for professionals in your area.
2. Reflect on What Triggered The Panic Attack
This is best done with the guidance and support of a professional. After a panic attack, it’s so important to work out what exactly brought it on. Sometimes the trigger is really clear: that medical exam you have in an hour.
At other times, however, it can be harder to work out what has brought on the panic attack. If that’s the case, one fantastic technique that I’ve heard used is called bracketing. Think about the time of your panic attack.
- Was there something coming up in the next hour that may have made you extremely anxious? No?
- What about the hour before the attack? Still nothing.
- How about four hours after the attack? Nope.
- What about the four hours before the attack?
You get the idea. Use brackets of time (1 hour, 4 hours, 8 hours, 1 day etc) to examine the time period around your panic attack. Chances are something up to a week before or a week after setting off the panic attack.
Once you’ve worked (either by yourself or with a professional) to discover what triggered the attack, the aim isn’t to avoid that trigger. The aim is to learn to manage your response to the trigger and this is definitely best done with the help of a professional therapist. For example, if a public presentation at work brought on the attack, your therapist will work with you to manage your responses so that in the future you can safely and more comfortably complete your work presentation.
3. Connect with Others
How often do we hear that we are ‘constantly connected’ in today’s world? And in many ways social media causes us to be far too connected. But we are connected to screens, not people. Loneliness can be a key factor in worsening anxiety while having a connection with other people can go a long way to alleviating how you feel.
This is where you’re S Team can really help. During times of particular overwhelm or stress, start reaching out and connecting with them early on. The oxytocin (bonding chemicals in the brain) released during these interactions will help you feel supported and more secure. This will also alert your team that you could do with some extra TLC during stressful times.
4. Create Structure
A good routine goes a long way to creating a sense of control which can also reduce anxiety and stress. You don’t want to control every second of your life- spontaneity keeps things exciting, after all! But getting must-dos out of your head and onto a bit of paper (or digital calendar) clears up some major mental space.
Tips for Creating Structure:
- Plan out your schedule each week so you know what is coming up. On the one planner use different colors for each calendar of your life- work, study, self-care, hobbies, exercise, friends and family, volunteering, etc. You can then ‘zoom out’ and look at the balance of colors for your upcoming week. Do you have enough time dedicated to connecting with your favorite people? Is your purple work calendar dominating your entire week and will this lead to extensive stress and anxiety? Make sure there is a good balance of colors (and therefore areas of your life) for improved wellbeing.
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- Create morning and night routines to give your body a sense of regularity. I recently established a Sleep Routine which has gone a long way to providing me with a deeper, more restful sleep (which in itself is vital for good mental health). This routine starts a number of hours before falling asleep, and every action in it prepares my body to calm down. After a solid month using this routine, my body now regulates itself better throughout the entire day.
5. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
A healthy body and a healthy mind are so closely linked. Caring for your physical health will have wonderful flow-on effects for your mental health and vice versa! Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help prevent future panic attacks
- Exercise is a sure-fire way to get the serotonin pumping around your brain. Keep your exercise routine varied- yoga for stretching out muscles, jogging for a cardio workout and perhaps some swimming for a resistance-free way to move the limbs. Aim for at least three half-hour exercise sessions a week.
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- Diet and mental health are increasingly being linked. Studies are being done which indicate that inflammation and gut health are strongly correlated with depression and anxiety. Cutting back on refined carbs, sugar, and alcohol, plus introducing more fruit and vegetables and balancing your gut health can revolutionize your health. I know how tricky it can be to maintain a healthy diet but with the right tips and tricks, you can feed your body exactly what it needs.
- Control your stress levels through practicing self-care, which has some fantastic benefits. Self-care looks different for everyone but may include meditation, hiking, reading, daily journaling etc. Just make sure your self-care practice is something that allows you to completely switch off.
I know how debilitating panic attacks can be. They’re the epitome of awful. But I also know that the right techniques and long-term mental healthcare plan can work wonders in getting your anxiety under control.
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Hopefully, these tips have provided you and your loved ones with some tools to use to prevent and manage panic attacks in the future.
How do you deal with panic attacks and anxiety?
More About Guest Contributor
Britt is the founder of The Maia Blog which she established to share her passion for cleaner, greener, healthier ways of living. She loves using her blog to help others optimize their health, lifestyle, and wellness through exploring sustainable, natural and eco-friendly alternatives.