For many of us, anxiety is an everyday aspect of life. We can be walking down the street, having a perfectly fine day, but all of a sudden, everything will unravel. Maybe it’s stress about school or work, or maybe it’s nerves about an upcoming party or interview. Or, if you’re anything like me, maybe it’s anxiety over absolutely nothing. Anxiety can be unavoidable, but there’s no reason any of us should let it take over our lives.
I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder and mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I was 14 years old. Fortunately, I’ve learned ways to deal with these issues. Through therapy and medication, I’ve reached a point where I’m dealing with anxiety and OCD, but they don’t control my life. I know how lucky I am, and I love being able to share my experiences in hopes of helping someone else. Even if I can’t help someone, at least I can let them know they’re not alone, and, honestly, isn’t that what we all need to know?
Today I want to talk about something that we all experience: Panic attacks. Even if you don’t have anxiety or OCD, you’ve probably experienced some sort of panic attack. I had my first major panic attack a few months before I was officially diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder.
I was at a friend’s thirteenth birthday party at a country club a half hour away from my house. At first, I was having a lot of fun! I danced with my best friends and posed for pictures with the Polaroid cameras that were provided. But after my friend blew out her candles and I ate my piece of cake, my stomach started to cramp. (Side note: I had undiagnosed Celiac Disease at the time, and that contributed to my anxiety. I just didn’t know that until a few years later.) Along with the stomach cramps, my mouth dried up as I tried to swallow saliva that wasn’t there. I ran over to the drink stand for a glass of water before I sat down and tried to relax. But people kept trying to make me dance, and I was starting to panic. My chest tightened, and my breaths became quick and shallow. My face felt like it was on fire. As it got harder to breathe, my stomach started to hurt so much that I wanted to cry, but I refused to let anyone know that I was struggling. Just act normal, I told myself. An hour or so later, the party ended, and once I walked into my house, I stopped panicking.
That was the first time I had a full blown panic attack, and it was certainly not the last. For months, I let panic attacks get the better of me, and, frankly, it sucked. Once I started therapy, my panic attacks became less frequent, but I know they’ll never disappear. I’m only human! Of course panic attacks will be a part of my life, but I don’t have to let them control my life. In fact, no one should let a panic attack control them.
Below are my tips and tricks for handling a panic attack. Most of these come from one of my old therapists, but some of them are my own tricks that I find helpful. Please note, I am not a licensed therapist. I speak solely from experience.
- 5-7-8 Breathing. This is the trick I find most helpful. My favorite therapist taught me this years ago, and it’s still my go-to technique whenever I feel nervous. It’s a simple deep-breathing exercise. Inhale for five seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale for eight seconds. The number of seconds doesn’t actually matter as long as you are focused on breathing and counting. This is an easy one to do in a crowd because no one will notice what you’re doing. They’ll just think you’re breathing, and there’s nothing weird about that.
- Visualization. This is another trick from my favorite therapist. Close your eyes and picture your favorite place. I like to picture the beach. Now what does it feel like there? “I feel the sun hitting my face and the sand between my toes.” And what does it sound like? “I hear waves and seagulls.” How do you feel there? “I feel relaxed and happy.” Keep your eyes closed and continue asking yourself questions about the place until you start to calm down. Unlike 5-7-8 Breathing, this is not as easy to pull off in public because it’s very dangerous to go around with your eyes closed.
- Muscle Focus. Once again, this is a trick from my favorite therapist. This one is much more time consuming than the others, but it’s also one of the most helpful. What you’ll do is take 10-30 seconds tensing each muscle in your body, one at a time. (You can tense them for longer if you have time to spare!) Start with your toes. Bunch them up for 10-30 seconds, then let them go. Then move on to your feet, calves, knees, thighs, butt, stomach, chest, shoulders, wrists, fingers, neck, jaw, lips, eyes and any other muscle you can tense. Continue focusing on your breathing the whole time! When you’re done, you should feel like you just had a massage. Your entire body will feel relaxed, and soon you’ll start to feel calm. Obviously, this is a tough one to pull off in public.
- Be Creative. This is one of those tricks I find helpful but no therapist ever taught me. All you have to do is get a pen and paper, then do whatever you want. Draw, write, doodle, scribble, stab the paper, whatever! Write about how you’re feeling, or draw a picture of a pony. There’s no wrong way to do this one. Creativity is a great way to de-stress. Knitting, coloring books, painting or playing an instrument can also help, but they’re not as easily accessible creative outlets.
- Let It Out. Cry, scream, kick, laugh. Whatever is boiling inside of you, release it. I love crying when I feel panicked. Ten good minutes of crying, and I will instantly feel better. Panic attacks can stem from so many different emotions, and instead of holding those in, react! You might want to avoid doing this in public because causing a scene can be embarrassing, but you do you! You’re having a panic attack. Don’t make it worse by holding back.
These are my top five tricks for handling a panic attack. They won’t work for everyone, and there are obviously many more things to try! Share your best tips in the comments! And remember: Panic attacks aren’t just for people with anxiety disorders. They can happen to anyone, and, while usually inconvenient, they’re perfectly normal.