Once upon a time in the distant past, panic attacks were the conqueror of my life.
Like clockwork, panic struck at 8pm.
For several months.
It got so bad that I could barely leave the house. I was afraid it would come for me and catch me off guard. I decided that staying at home and being alone felt safer. That way, I wouldn’t have to pretend I was okay.
I had no idea what was wrong with me, and neither did the professionals. For a long time, I was told something physically wrong with me, and that I had an illness.
And I did. I just didn’t understand what kind.
For those who are unsure, anxiety is a combination of physiological symptoms (that feel very real and unpleasant), as a result of mental thought processes and environmental triggers.
In other words, you are physically responding to your thoughts and your environment — whether you realise it or not.
Physiological symptoms vary for each individual. They include, but are not limited to:
- An elevated heart rate/heart palpitations
- Sweating (fingertips in particular for me)
- Feeling like you’re having a heart attack
- A pressing urge to run away, or fight (also known as going into “fight/flight” mode.)
Anyway. I was fortunate enough to meet a psychiatrist who explained what was happening to me, and that’s when I started to regain control of my life.
And what I learned and applied back then, is what I will share today.
Identify the underlying fear.
- What are you afraid of?
- Where did the fear come from?
- What thoughts are going through your mind?
- When we go into a panic, there’s always an overwhelming fear. This will be different for each person, but there is always something. Maybe it’s a fear of fainting. For me, it was a fear of throwing up.
I managed to figure out that this came from my childhood. In that knowledge, I changed the story in my head and taught myself that there was nothing to be afraid of.
Understanding your fear and where it came from is crucial to recovery.
Identify the environmental and/or physiological triggers.
Put another way: what happened in your body or environment to set you off?
For me, the slightest feeling of nausea was enough to get me going. Then I would enter into a cycle that looked something like this:
I’d feel a bit sick > I’d think about being sick > I’d become more anxious > I’d feel even more sick > I’d convince myself I was going to be sick > Anxiety would peak and take hold.
This loop would continue for an hour or so -sometimes more, sometimes less- until eventually I realised I wasn’t going to vomit, and I’d calm down from exhaustion.
So where was I going wrong?
Rather than simply notice I felt a bit sick, I’d react to it. The more I thought about how unpleasant the feeling was, the worse the feeling became.
What I hadn’t realized in the past, was that thinking about being sick made me feel even more sick. Instead of realizing that my thought process was exacerbating the nausea, I allowed the cycle to continue and get myself into a state of terror.
Knowing this allowed me to step back and look at the situation objectively, and improve my self talk.
So whatever the fear is for you — observe it and see it for what it is. Change your self talk. Know that it’s not rational, and that it’s very unlikely to occur based on past experience. And even if it did? You will be okay.
When you feel the anxiety start to take hold — take really big, deep breaths.
Anyone who has experienced anxiety probably hates me for saying this, because we hear this all the time.
But the truth is, it works. And the only reason it hasn’t worked for you is because you’ve not been doing it for a long enough period of time to start working.
The reason it works, is because the symptoms of anxiety are incompatible with deep breathing.
Let me repeat that.
The symptoms of anxiety are incompatible with deep breathing.
This is really important, so let that sink in.
To get good at deep breathing, practise when you are not in a panicked state. You might feel resistant to do this at first, just like we do with many things. But if you experience panic attacks enough, your future self will thank you for this.
Just. Do. It.
When you combine this technique with better self talk, you stop the cycle in its tracks and it no longer spirals out of control.
It really is that simple.
A side note: This does not mean I’m perfect, and I’ll never claim to be. I still feel it. The only difference is, I recognize it for what it is and I know what I need to do to nip it in the bud.
As for the take-home message?
Panic attacks needn’t take over your life.
Understand them, prepare for them, and take back control.