Monday, May 2, 2016

How I Manage My Anxiety (Panic Attacks)

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to publish this old draft about anxiety and panic attacks. I wrote a few posts last year for mental health awareness, but it wasn't anything official. This year, I'm hoping to do a five post series, one on each Monday of May, to focus on a few mental health related topics: anxiety, self esteem, stress, depression, and recovery. Mental health can be frustrating, uneasy, even scary to talk about, but the more exposure there is, the easier it is to open discussion for those who need it, which is why I want to share my experience.


It's almost midnight and I can't sleep because there are things I need to do, which in turn causes anxiety, which of course builds up to panic attacks. I don't have generalized anxiety disorder, but I do get panic attacks, so it's a bit of the opposite for me. Stress makes me worry about having a panic attack, which in turn causes anxiety, and the cycle continues from there.

However, as this is the case, it's a little easier for me to recognize when I'm worried about a panic attack and stop it before it happens. There are always those neurotypical internet lists that say, "Think Positive!" or "Relax," and "Stop Negative Thoughts," (seriously, what do you think a panic attack is) or complicated acronyms like "AWARE" (no one is going to remember what those stand for when they're about to panic). What I do want to remember is grounding. It's different for everyone but essentially, grounding is use of sensory stimulus to help a person regain control of their thoughts.

I realize that this is yet another "internet list," so before I begin, I'd like to say: in my experience, this is what I do, and sometimes it doesn't even work for me. It depends on the state of mind and if I can remember to do any of these things. These usually help stop anxiety before it becomes a panic attack; when it does get really bad I can't think straight and will definitely not remember to use them. In that case it's best to just let it ride out. The thing about a panic attack is that it is a panic attack, you can't control it any more than you can control a heart attack really.

1) Candles –– My favorite grounding technique by far is using candles. I don't mean lighting candles to help with mood or to ponder their metaphorical significance. A large jar candle is quite heavy, and I use that weight to help "center" myself again. It's a simple object to focus on, and when I'm holding it, I am aware of the weight, the cold glass, and the scent. Nine times out of ten, I'd say a candle works well to prevent a panic attack.

2) Familiar stimulus –– Other grounding techniques can involve taste, touch, and sound. As it is unhealthy to binge eat to combat anxiety, as I have done in the past, I suggest chewing gum as an alternative, or drinking water. I have a rough, wire grounding bracelet that I would wear as well, and I'd run my finger over it to focus on the texture. Sound is tricky, because listening to music doesn't always help with anxiety. A specific motivational playlist can be good, but sometimes, silence and a break from all the noise might be necessary. Bottom line is, find something that ties a particular thought ("It's all going to be okay") to a particular sensory stimulus, and carry that stimulus with you so you can be reminded of the thought.

3) Breathing time –– Candles and other stimuli aren't always available, such as when I'm in class or out and about. Another thing with anxiety is that I often get short of breath because I freeze up and "forget" to breathe. Setting aside 20 seconds to 2 minutes to do nothing but breathe is a good way reset once you are aware of your anxiety. I have a friend who gets annoyed when this happens because the short, quick intake of breath sounds to her like I'm about to sneeze, and when the sneeze doesn't happen, it feels incomplete. That said, this isn't the best in public, but for a quick fix, this works quite well.

4) Hug a pet –– This doesn't work for me anymore in college, but when Larrycat was still around, hugging him and petting his fur was another grounding method that worked well. This one is fairly self explanatory. Pets are great in general, and also for anxiety.

5) Writing/outlet –– This is usually post assignment or sometimes post panic attack. Writing or any intensive creative activity is something you want to set aside time for, or else forcing yourself to write while you're anxious and frustrated can sometimes make it worse. Nevertheless, it works for me to write when I'm anxious to drain out the anxious thoughts onto a screen, so I can see them in front of me for what they are, rather than endlessly echoing about in my head. I'd say that's a good deal of what this blog is for: catharsis and unloading.

6) Art/doodling –– I notice that I have a lot of nervous energy when I'm anxious, so to use that energy productively, I channel it through ink. Similar to the point above, art and doodling are an outlet for me to express my feelings or distract from anxious thoughts. You don't have to be an artist; a lot of the time, I draw simple flowers, as many of them as I can, filling up the margins.

7) Stay hydrated –– I mentioned this before, but since I'm just thinking this up as I go, I want to reemphasize drinking water. I'm usually more irritable and tired when I'm dehydrated, which is bad for anxiety, so water is good for necessary body functions as well as grounding through the feel of the water.

8) Have a motto –– Again, this relates to a previous point, but having a catchphrase that you can tell yourself helps as a reminder that anxiety is a state of mind, not forever. Usually I use "Everything will be okay," which I write on my hand, my arm, my notebooks, pretty much everywhere. It's easy to remember, and it's a reminder I tell myself when I'm anxious so I know that I've been through this and I've will be fine eventually.

9) Distractions –– Anxiety tends to run on a positive feedback loop, that is, it produces more of itself. To cut out the loop, distractions such as playing online games (2048 is a good one because it's fairly simple with neutral colors) or watching a TV show can help temporarily clear out the anxiety. This one is better for when you don't have an immediate deadline, otherwise missing the deadline can bring about more anxiety. Music is also a great distraction if you don't have as much time. I have a go-to album that always calms me down instantly, and having just five minutes to soak in a song can make all the difference in preventing a panic attack.

10) Tell a friend –– This one is situational. Sometimes my anxiety tells me that I am being a nuisance to my friends and that they all hate me (an irrational thought, but it still gets in the way). When that isn't the case, I find it helpful to let a friend know that I'm feeling anxious. Keep in mind that these are friends who are well aware of my situation, and I've prepped them ahead of time when I'm not anxious with a list of what to tell me when I am anxious. This is especially helpful because when I can't remember the things I need to do to prevent a panic attack, I can ask them and they'll go down the list and ask me if I've had water or that I should put on music or take deep breaths.

Again, these are what work for me. Methods that other people have recommended to me, like yoga and adult coloring books, don't work for me, so it is possible that what I mentioned won't work for you. Also worth noting, I am not a counselor or doctor, these are all based on my own experience, and hopefully they are helpful ideas for dealing with anxiety and panic attacks. ◊

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