Oh hello, Panic, nice of you to drop by.
So, right now, you’re in the midst of an anxiety attack. Good thing you bookmarked this page for such an occasion; this is one you can come back to as often as you need.
Breathing easy is a challenge, to say the least. As far as your body is concerned, the world is ending, you’re in danger and your caveman instincts want to get you the hell out of Dodge. You don’t know why this is happening. You felt absolutely fine two minutes ago and, as far as you can see, there is no knife-wielding axe murderer in your vicinity. You’re petrified that your mind has the power to yield this kind of influence over your body. Why can’t you get it together? Why has your fight-or-flight response been triggered when you’re sitting on your couch? More thoughts like this continue to flood your mind, serving only to worsen the feeling.
Now is not the time for analysis
We can do that later when you’re feeling better. This is the time to get you back to basics.
Firstly. Breathe. Breathe in for a count of four (from your belly, not your chest), hold for a count of four and release your breath over a count of four. Do it again. And again. If you can, resist the urge to exhale your breath forcefully by slightly tightening your throat so that the breath comes out slowly. You should hear a slight whooshing noise. This is the Ujjayi breathing technique and it’s very effective (more details on that in the book).
Secondly. Stop trying to resist the feeling of panic. Stop trying to (internally) run as far away from yourself as possible. Close your eyes (if you can) and let it happen to you. ‘Come at me, do your worst’, is something I got used to saying. You are stronger than panic. Surrendering to your feelings of panic will instantly dissipate them; it’s the resisting that makes it worse.
Inhale confidence. Hold for four. Exhale anxiety slowly.
Hold for four.
Thirdly (and by now it’s probably already been and gone). Accept that it’s happened. You’ve had a panic attack, yes, but nobody died. You can’t go back in time and erase the experience, but you will get better and better at minimising it, should it arise again. You’re okay, there is no harm done and nothing bad is happening to you, nor will it happen to you as a result of a panic attack. Your body is trying its best to protect you but it’s gone a little overboard (I know, that’s putting it more than mildly).
Again. Nice, long, slow breaths. Do this for as long as you like, and then come back to me.
You’re back. Feel better?
I’ve been there. You can’t quite appreciate the weight of a panic attack, or its ability to completely throw you off course for the rest of the day, until you’ve felt it yourself. In my experience, panic attacks happened quietly on the inside – think of a duck gliding along the water looking as cool as a cucumber, meanwhile its legs are flapping frantically below the surface. Nobody around me would have suspected a thing. Instead of the need to breathe into a brown paper bag, the apex of my anxiety manifested itself as a burning fire that flooded my body. One time, I actually thought I was having a burning, allergic reaction to something. I wasn’t. My panic attacks didn’t last very long –they never do – but they were horrendous enough to leave me reeling long after they’d finished.
On a physical level, what’s happening is this: your mind is under pressure, your thoughts are spiralling, through no fault of your own, and your body assumes it’s under threat. It triggers your fight-or-flight response and, because there’s nothing to flee from and nothing to fight, the combination of adrenaline and cortisol (the hormones you’ve been designed to release as a survival mechanism) just explodes inside you. No fun but, on a physical level, there’s no harm done.
Give yourself a break
Finally, give yourself a break. This is the part that really got me. It wasn’t so much the panic but the aftermath, when I’d cry and obsess over the fact that it had happened at all, coming to the conclusion that I’d just taken ten massive steps backwards. I hadn’t, and neither have you.
Now that your breathing and heart rate have returned to normal, do not beat yourself up over the fact that you had a panic attack. You’re not losing it, you’re not weak, you’re not choosing to do this to yourself. Be as nice to yourself as you would be to a friend who’s just had a wobble. You’d wrap your arms around them and just let them feel however it is they feel. Think of your body as an overprotective but well-meaning parent who just really wants to keep you safe. Don’t berate it. Reassure it. You are okay, you appreciate its efforts to shield you from impending doom, but there’s nothing to fear.
Examine the steps
In the next step, you need to look at the various vulnerability factors that contributed to this momentary rise in anxiety. This always helped me to understand why I might have experienced a particularly bad wobble.
º Are you overworked or overtired?
º Have you been feeling stressed out for a while?
º Are you under pressure to be feeling good right now?
º Are you under the weather?
º Are you upset about something?
º Are you hungover?
º Have you been eating a lot of sugar?
º Are there a lot of stimulants in the mix, e.g. coffee?
Now you need to deal with your body physically – for now, no alcohol, no caffeine, no sugar, no unnecessary stimulation of the nervous system, no more analysis. It’s time to reset and soothe your parasympathetic nervous system.
It’s in dealing with the aftermath that you’ll learn and improve the most.
Instead of pressuring yourself to not have a panic attack – for some people this idea is enough to give them one – focus your efforts on the restoration of your equilibrium, post-event. Eventually, the fear will simply go out of the experience because you’ll become really familiar with the unthreatening outcome, and, thus, the tendency to panic in the future will subside. In fact, I’d almost be glad it happened, if you can push yourself that far. In an ideal world, we’d never have to feel that way, but many of us do at some point in our lives. Think of it instead as just another experience that you’ve survived and one that you can learn from.
An extract from Owning It: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Living with Anxiety by Caroline Foran, available from bookshops and as an ebook. For more information visit carolineforan.com