The scariest thing about a panic attack is that, it shows up like a hurricane when the sun is shinning and the birds are singing in the trees. Meaning that, it can strike even when you’re enjoying life and think that you got it all figured it out: during work, while you’re exchanging vows with your future husband or as you walk up to Empire State Building.
Most people I talk to online who struggle with the cycle of panic attacks don’t know what helps and, they are most likely not told by their doctors what is wrong with them. I wish that we lived in a world where, if you were rushed to the hospital with a panic attack, the doctor would take your hand, sit you down and let you unleash all your demons until you’ve calmed down.
Unfortunately, in the medical world, there is still a lack of bed-side manner when it comes to those suffering from anxiety attacks. Not only that the general practitioners would tell you shortly that ‘nothing’s wrong’ and then let you go about your way but they might even look bothered or uncomfortable with you.
The following are tips I made up from my therapy and personal experience to deal with generalized anxiety and panic attacks. Also, please check the disclaimer at the end of the post! (If you don’t know what a panic attack is, check this website www.anxietycentre.com.)
1. Talk yourself out of the panic attack
This is not easy and I suggest you find a good therapist first to help you develop an inner, positive voice. This voice, as opposing to the inner critic, can come to your rescue when you’re in trouble.
I developed this positive voice by first starting meditation and becoming more peaceful. I believe it is easier to begin meditating daily and then trying to develop a comforting inner voice.
You can draw this inner helper so it can make more sense. Thus, when you feel like panicking, you can appoint this helper to help you. For example, use phrases like ‘I am here for you, what kind of help do you need right now?’ or ‘We can get through this together’, or ‘This is going to pass, it is only a feeling and feelings are not dangerous’. Ask your therapist to work on developing this positive, helping side of yourself.
2. Close your eyes
The first reaction of a sufferer of panic attacks is to look for a way out of the situation. In the past, my therapist told me to think what would be the worst it can happen if I don’t flee. See, I would usually flee the situation that I perceived ‘dangerous’ by distracting myself with music, going to a ‘safe’ place (the bathroom) or using mild medicine.
Thing is, you need to learn that the ONLY safe place is inside yourself. You know best how to help yourself when panic arises. Thus, I suggest you close your eyes when you feel anxious. Try to focus your attention from the negative, dreadful thoughts (‘This is terrible’, ‘I can’t escape this’, ‘I will die’, ‘No one will be able to help’, etc) to your body. Notice the butterflies in your belly, the racing heart and try not to engage with these symptoms. They are natural bodily reactions, but when your brain tells you that they’re dangerous, that’s when you panic more.
Then focus on your breathing and try to count the breaths. Breathe from your diaphragm not from your chest. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. You can find specific instructions in this article.
The best thing I did for my anxiety is to start feeling my physical feelings and enjoy them, rather than running away from them. Those who enjoy their feelings and love the rush of adrenaline never experience panic attacks. Because when you start enjoying a feeling, there will be no fear associated with it.
3. Excuse yourself from an abusive situation
If a panic attack happens during an abusive situation, give yourself permission to walk away. This is the best thing I have done for myself to improve my mental health.
I have been in few abusive situations in my life and my first reaction is to make it work because I didn’t wanna hurt the other person by rejecting him/her.
However, when someone treats you badly, there is no work you can do that will change the other person. Moreover, it is not OK to want to change another so he/she will fit your needs.
If you are yelled at or gas lighted by your boyfriend or girlfriend, walk away. No one told you before that you can just leave and the world will not crash or burn behind you.
But you really can!
The worst thing about being raised by narcissistic parents is that, they teach you that if someone you love puts you down or cheats on you, you should try to understand him and forgive him.
My own mother was disrespected by my father by far too many times. And she tried to make it work with him. After being many years away from her and her family, I have heard that there were even violent interactions at home. Abuse escalates and you can’t hope that your partner will someday get help and change. What you need to do is to find change in yourself and make the relationship with yourself work.
4. Put on your headphones
There are certain songs that change the brain waves and help you calm down instantly. Listening to them might help you be less anxious. Sarah Schuster, a writer for The Mighty developed a set list with songs that can actually prevent a panic attack from becoming full-blown.
You can read the article ’19 songs that have helped people get through panic attacks’ on www.themighty.com.
I have only one track that stops my panic attacks even before they begin. It’s Anthony Gonzalez’ larger-than-life song, ‘Outro’.
5. Say ‘NO’. Be assertive.
It is known that panic attacks hit when you are not assertive in situations that require you to state your needs.
If your boss invites to join a party that has clowns as entertainment and you’re afraid of clowns to the point that you’re panicking around them, just say ‘no’. If your friend asks you to babysit her boy because she is exhausted and sick but you already decided to go to bed early, just say no.
It is your life and you can do whatever you feel like doing. Don’t let people force you into feeling guilty for not helping them or talking to them. Give to others only when you have enough to give.
If time is limited, then restrict the time you spend with friends. If your parents ask you for a loan and you just become unemployed, don’t try to find them the money just because they make you feel guilty for not helping them. You need to help yourself first in order to help others.
Say no as often as possible and you’d experience less and less panic attacks.
To learn more about the connection between anxiety and assertiveness, check out this article at www.positivepanicattacks.com.
Usually a panic attack erupts when your negative emotions are denied and not given a voice. Check with yourself and ask yourself if you are really sad and need time for yourself to process the sadness. Crying can release a lot of anxiety that was built up in time. Trust me, it works!
7. Practice a breathing technique
Learn more about this subject in ‘Breathing techniques to calm anxiety and panic’. I’m not experienced in these methods, nor did I try cognitive therapy, thus, I can’t talk more about this.
However, I have heard from friends that these breathing exercises are helpful for anxiety.
8. Ask for help
As stated before, those who wait for the next panic attack to hit suffer from a lack of assertiveness.
What does it mean to be assertive anyway?
In my opinion, it means to recognize your needs in your relationships, state them clearly, be true to who you are and go after the things that make you happy. Not stating your needs or not recognizing to yourself that you actually need help, will make you very anxious.
Try to take small steps and ask help for simple things like, asking the waitress at your favorite coffee shop where the toilet is or if she knows the best sushi place in town. Then, ask your friend to help you with a problem you have. When you’re ready you can ask help with panic attacks from a loved one or stranger. It won’t be easy but it’s worth trying.
9. Meditate prior to an anxious situation
Meditation has been one of the most helpful tools in solving my panic attacks and anxiety. Sitting for 10-15 minutes every morning in silence is like a treasure I didn’t know it exists. People meditate daily and I have been told to try meditation few times but didn’t know it would actually be extremely helpful.
The idea is to sit with your feelings in silence and not judge yourself when anxiety hits. You are also not able to move, thus, you will become less likely to walk away from a panic attack. You will learn that all feelings are created equal and they are all beautiful and helpful to us. Even fear is a feeling that helps us in life, rather than hurting us.
For more information about meditation and its benefits, check out my previous blog post How to meditate with the controversial artist, Marina Abramovic.
Art therapy is a god tool to reach the deep feelings inside yourself, the same feelings that keep you trapped, in a state of panic. Drawing when the panic hits has many benefits: it can increase your attention, it shifts your attention from the negative mind outside yourself and onto the paper which will relax you.
In conclusion, there are many things you can do to prevent a panic attack from becoming overwhelming or scary enough to keep you bound to your home. A good thing to remember is that, panic attacks arise when you can’t state your needs and lack assertiveness. Ask your therapist to help you develop assertiveness skills that you can apply daily to help you cope with anxiety.
What types of activities help you deal with panic attacks? Leave a comment bellow.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or therapist, so if you find yourself overwhelmed by panic attacks, seek help immediately. These tips are probably helpful in combination with therapy and medication.