As you will know if you’ve been keeping up with my blog, this week I am posting everyday for 5 days. These posts, entitled “5 ways…” are about how I have conquered, changed, or am improving upon, something in my life.
If you didn’t manage to catch it, yesterday’s post was all about eating disorders: 5 ways I have taken steps towards eradicating my eating disorders.
Today’s post covers another sensitive topic, and one that has been extremely prevalent in my life:
5 ways I prevent my anxiety from spiralling into a panic attack
Firstly, I would like to outline a few things…What is a panic attack? NHS UK website describes a panic attack and its effects on the mind and body:
A panic attack is a rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms. These symptoms of panic can be frightening and happen suddenly, often for no clear reason. Panic attacks usually last between five and 20 minutes, and although it may feel as though you are in serious trouble, they aren’t dangerous and shouldn’t cause any physical harm. It is unlikely you will be admitted to hospital if you have a panic attack.
You may feel an overwhelming sense of fear and a sense of unreality, as if you’re detached from the world around you.
As well as psychological symptoms, you may also experience physical symptoms of panic, such as:
- a sensation that your heart is beating irregularly (palpitations)
- shortness of breath (hyperventilation)
- a choking sensation
- chest pain
- feeling sick
The physical symptoms of a panic attack are caused by your body going into “fight or flight” mode in response to something you think is a threat. As your body tries to take in more oxygen your breathing quickens. Your body also releases hormones, such as adrenaline, causing your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up.
Upon reading the NHS UK’s explanation of what a panic attack is, accompanied by a non-exhaustive list of crippling symptoms that it can cause an individuals body and mind, it is clear to see how panic attacks can be so frightening.
Panic attacks used to entirely control my life. If I didn’t have pre-panic attack anxiety, the fear of fear itself, or butterflies, I was fully enveloped within the attack, wondering when it was going to end. They have never been predictable or recognisable in a pattern, and often when I think a situation would bring on a panic attack it doesn’t, and I may be surprised by an awful one in the most normal of situations. Panic attacks themselves, or the fear of them, have affected my ability to do anything and everything. I particularly struggled during my education with exams – this seemed to spark the worst panic attacks I have ever had. I couldn’t hide them, my lips would seize up, my whole body would shake, and I would be violently sick. Not really a good basis for which to sit an important exam paper.
What is important to remember is that panic attacks are petrifying and paralysing, and whilst they can feel that way, they are not going to kill you. If you can get in control of your breathing, find techniques that help you personally, and try and override your anxious thoughts, you should be able to stop them in their tracks, or at least ease them. Luckily, of recent, I have been able to get my anxiety under control, and whilst I still upon occasion feel anxious or fearful of a situation, I am generally able to prevent a panic attack before it arises. How have I done this?
- Living in the present – I went to see a therapist regarding my panic attacks, in fact just one of many, and she said a few things that really stuck with me. One of them was to live in the moment. If you think about it, when you are anxious, you are living in both the past and the future. Why? You’re in the past due to the fact that you are reliving old patterns of behaviour and allowing your memories of how you have behaved in anxiety inducing situations to control your current behaviour. You are in the future because you are focussing on the “what if”, and worrying about what could or might happen that means you have to be on your guard. If in fact you live in the present, you can’t be anxious at all because you’re too busy focussing on the fact that you are fine, in control and in the present moment you are coping.
- Not listening to the voices in my head – the voices in my head have been both my best friend and my worst enemy at different times in my life. When I succumb to a panic attack, the voices are allowed to scream red alert about all the things that could and might happen, to inform me of all the dangers, to wind me up, to taunt me, to embarrass me, and to make me feel ashamed. One of the most important, but difficult, ways in which i have prevented recent anxieties from turning into panic attacks is to quieten the voices in my head. This is difficult yes, but once mastered, you are no longer a victim of your own bullying. You are not weak, you are not different, you should not be punished by your own self for having a mental illness. Shut those thoughts up! When my brain tries to interfere, I…
- Distract myself – being able to distract yourself from your negative thoughts is so important, but also to focus on something else, anything else, to distract yourself from the anxiety itself. For example, when I was anxious about flying off on holiday last month, every time I thought about it, I read my book, or watched a TV programme, or engaged in a conversation about something entirely different. The distraction really does help in changing your thoughts and therefore the focus is much less on the anxiety provoking situation.
- Using homeopathic/alternative therapies – I have been using a variety of alternative relaxation techniques for a number of years to try and get on top of my anxieties for the past few years. As anxiety works up your whole body, makes it rigid and as a result I often get a lot of muscular pain. To relax my muscles I get regular massages, and also have recently tried cupping (if you don’t mind the bruising for a while!) and acupuncture. Acupuncture is also a renowned alternative therapy for helping with anxiety and depression. Furthermore, whilst on prescribed medication for anxiety, I have been using a herbal remedy made by Bach. They have many different essences for different things, however I use Aspen. With this, 2-3 drops placed under the tongue or in a glass of water always help me to feel more in control and less anxious. Relaxation at home also helps: long warm baths, reading books and good sleep hygiene routine, as well as lots of “you time”. All of these contribute to helping me feel more in control of my anxiety and therefore less likely to succumb to a panic attack.
- Becoming my own best friend – a therapist I once saw (again, one of the many) told me that one of the most important things in an anxious situation is to remember that you have your own back. This means that whilst you may be anxious, you feel safe in your own body, know that you have got this, and you can handle this. Being there for yourself, and not relying on others or external factors to “save you” allow you to become your best friend, and in turn, realise that all you need is your inner strength to overcome any situation. This is still something I am working on, however when in an anxiety provoking situation I am getting better at reminding myself that I am in control, I have my own back, I can do this just as I have before because I’ve got me myself and I, and that’s all I need.
Panic attacks have been the bane of my life since I was 8 years old, and have controlled my existence right down to the simplest of tasks. I have been at times, unable to go to the supermarket just to pick up a few bits of shopping, have had to leave a restaurant half way through a meal before the full on panic sets in, I have thought I was close to dying, I have been so afraid I thought I couldn’t go on. I don’t feel quite so scared of my own fears and anxiety now, and as I said, I seem to have my panic attacks under enough control that they only occur very, very occasionally now. I feel so very grateful and lucky to not face this everyday. I have fought to override the voices in my head, live in the moment, and trust myself. And I will continue fighting until that voice of anxiety, doubt and fear in my head is not just quiet, but she no longer exists.