From one (previously very anxious, now far less so) person to another.
Have you ever had a panic attack?
Those of us nodding behind our computer screens will undoubtedly agree, they’re properly awful.
While it no doubt feels different for all of us, for me a panic attack feels like I’m clouding over with dizziness, breathlessness and fear … it feels like my chest muscles are tightening, and are no longer under my control. It feels like my ‘self’ is either falling away, or becoming so glaringly close that I can’t see beyond it.
Even if you haven’t had a panic attack, do you go through bouts of anxiety? Bouts of feeling breathless, tense, uneasy and unsafe? Most of us do, I suspect.
Here are some thoughts about curbing your anxiety by changing your relationship with it, from someone who’s come a long way in the last couple of years.
I am no mental health expert, and people certainly go through varying degrees of anxiety, which can lead to other mental health difficulties. These thoughts are a reflection on my experience and on what has genuinely helped me. Seeking medical advice is really important and nothing can substitute that until you feel comfortable for it to do so. Either way, I do think this advice will always help, as long as it is in addition to the medical help that may be needed.
First, you’re not abnormal or wrong. Anxiety isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s really important, and is a sign you’re a sensitive, intuitive person. Anxiety is a feeling, or state of being, which tells us how we’re connecting, both to the world and to ourselves.
No, you haven’t been taken over by that scat bug thing from Animorphs that makes you lose your mind. You’re not losing your mind full stop. Anxiety is telling us something, but it needs to be acknowledged, accepted and trained to help us, rather than allowed to hinder.
Instead of trying to push it away or ignore it, we need to make it a mate … we need to focus on the things that help us temper it, but also change our relationship with it so that when it comes, we can use it for good.
I’ve been anxious since I was eight. Not the whole time obviously, but someone asked me when the first time I could remember being anxious was, and it was definitely a pretty shitty day back then. Now, I live a great life, I’m very fortunate generally but especially because I have loving family and friends. So in many ways it seems I have no reason to be anxious. (Spoiler – that’s a load of tosh – everyone has reason to be anxious: we are all fluid beings moving through a fluid world, affected by the goings on within it.)
Despite my relative privilege, I’ve lived with an undercurrent of anxiety, that can spur into panic attacks, for much of my life.
It all came to a head in the last few years – around the time I hit my late twenties – with panic attacks every time I drove down the highway from Sydney to Canberra. I do this drive quite a bit, and tend to drive alone in the country a lot too, and this became a catalyst for what felt like a full-blown meltdown:
I’d feel like my eyes were clouding over on the highway – while going at speed – and that I’d begin to hallucinate and inevitably crash because I was seeing something outside the reality I was actually in. (Woah.)
I also used to have the classic Sunday-post-party panic attack, where I’d feel like my world was crumbling and that the beginning of a new work week heralded the apocalypse and also a heart attack. (Again … woo-up sally.)
Then there was the on-the-other-side-of-the-world-away-from-home panic attack, the trying-to-go-to-sleep-but-can’t panic attack, the train-stations-are-hectic panic attack, the in-an-important-meeting panic attack, or the I-might-be-in-physical-danger panic attack … and so on.
So with all this experience building, my panic attack portfolio was looking pretty shit hot.
Since then, I’ve used this experience, along with much help (which I’ll go into in due course), to make some even more hot progress, so that I no longer have panic attacks, and am far better at managing my anxiety in general.
We live in a frenetic, overwhelming world, with lights and cars and trucks and beeps and staplers and people bumping into us and smells and that asshole yelling at us for parking like a drongo and too much coffee and so much on and computers and social media and the wellness industry and bullshit and politicians who do fuck-all and a dying reef & environment in general and the patriarchy and body dysmorphia and iphones and instagram and likes and an-apple-a-day-keeps-the-no it doesn’t cancer is everywhere- and family disagreements and money and not having enough money and physio appointments and dinner on friday and need to get d'affinois for dinner on friday but can’t afford it and fights with your partner cause you’re overwhelmed and what’s our five year plan and why do we need a five year plan and why can’t we just live in the present?
I read a book recently – a great book – called Notes On A Nervous Planet, by Matt Haig. It’s short and easy and absolutely worth the read if you’re looking for something new on your bedside table.
Matt likens our connected, twenty-first century world to a giant nervous system, where we’re the neurons and the world is a single being on the brink of a globe-sized panic attack. We’re in a time of cultural, technological and social overload.
I think this idea feels true to many of us. We can feel the increasing tension, the bubbling over and unease … and it’s making us anxious.
But while we’re all definitely on the stove, we can still learn to take ourselves off the boil.
How can we calm ourselves in such a world, and how can we learn to treat our anxiety differently?
These are the things I have done, and some of the things Matt also recommends, to change the relationship we have with our anxiety, and reconnect with ourselves and the world in a beneficial way:
Stop doing as much of the stuff that you know isn’t good for you.
Stop drinking, smoking and doing whatever else, so much.
Instead, do more of the things that make you connected, happy and full.
This seems so obvious, but it’s advice from one of the psychologists I saw when I was in the midst of my intense bouts of panic attacks.
She asked me what I liked doing aside from drinking wine and rolling cigarettes, and I said “Reading, swimming, singing, writing and being in nature”, to which she replied “Cool, just do more of that.” and ended our session.
Write down your triggers. Where have you had panic attacks before?
Acknowledge the places that are triggers for you, and try to write down why. Are there lots of stimuli? Is there a lot of unnatural, human-made stuff there? Does it pull you back into an unpleasant memory?
The lovely little part of our brain that helps us have recurring anxiety or panic attacks in certain situations is called the amygdala. This little biddie is a lover of habits, so we just need to retrain her so she can form new ones. Acknowledging your habits exist and wondering why they do, are the first steps in her new exercise regime.
Reading is one of the best and easiest ways to switch our brains (and whole selves) into the present. While we certainly venture into our imaginations when we read, we are focused on what’s in front of us – what’s being said – rather than worrying about all of life’s other hubbub.
Lie on the earth.
‘Grounding yourself’ can be a literal thing too. Lying on the earth (not the carpet or the wooden floor, the actual grass, sand and soil) is one of the most calming things you can do.
Swim, walk, get out of the city.
Speaks for itself. Just get out of man-made stuff and into the natural world, where good things, natural things and calming things flow around you and through you. We aren’t on a planet, we are it.
If you have an animal cuddle it on your belly.
Cause dogs and stuff are awesome. They also make you more present.
Turn off all notifications – the people can wait. This is an important one … or at least it has been for me.
This is one of Matt’s recommendations, and is honestly one of the best things I’ve done to temper my anxiety. I don’t get ‘dings’ from my phone anymore and because of this I don’t feel the desperate and immediate need to see what’s going on outside what I’m trying to do, or where I’m trying to be. It also helps our brain focus far better on whatever task we’re doing, lengthening our ever-shortening attention spans.
Things can wait. People can wait. We don’t need to be in a world of immediacy.
Stop giving so much of a fuck about what people think.
People are thinking more about themselves than about what you said last night or what you were wearing. If they’re people worth keeping in your life they will understand that not all interactions are perfect and they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt or *shock horror* not judge you in the first place.
Something that helps me mid panic attack.
Cross your arms against your chest and tap your collar bones slowly, and one at a time with each hand or the tips of your first two fingers on each hand. There’s a reverberation to his that brings me back to earth. You can also try and count to fifty or more with each tap. Make sure they’re slow. Also download Headspace and listen to it whenever you need. Belly breathe.
Try to retrain your amygdala.
This is the aforementioned exercise regime. Mid panic attack, or as you’re falling into it, don’t run. Turn to face the feeling and say to it repeatedly and with intention:
I do not do this anymore.
I do not do this anymore.
Olivia, you do not do this anymore.
I Do Not Do This Anymore.
I Do Not Do This ANYMORE.
MATE! YOU DO NOT DO THIS ANYMORE.
I DO NOT DO THIS ANYMORE.
I Do Not Do This Anymore.
O, you don’t do this anymore.
I don’t do this anymore.
This will take time. I am still working with it today, but it does help.
I do not have them anymore. (See? I’m even practicing now!)
Finally, and so importantly, know that this is a relationship, not a means to an end.
Anxiety – like happiness, fear, loneliness or anger – tells us about the way we are positioned in the world … and that something might need re-balancing.
It is a reminder to care for ourselves, so don’t treat it like the enemy. Try to re-imagine it as an old friend who knows you well enough to pull you up when things are going awry. It’s only there to help.
Because of this, anxiety isn’t something we’ll ‘get rid’ of. Doing all of these calming things above aren’t a means to the end, to ‘Rid Ourselves of the Scourge of Anxiety!!’, like it’s some 1950’s horror film like The Blob, or a condition like the black plague.
Always remember, anxiety is a feeling that tells us about our current position and balance. It’s always a work in progress, a constant relationship, a friend, a pointer to how you can be more connected to yourself and life around you.
SO PEACE OUT SISTAS N’ BROTHAS. I’m off to go stare at an ant mound (another, fascinating thing that has helped me too).
This article was originally written for Chronicles Of Her.