I was 8 years old the first time I had a panic attack. Of course, I didn't know that's what it was but I remember the feeling well. I jolted out of bed in the middle of the night, gasping for air. My heart was racing and no matter what I did, I just couldn't seem to catch a breath. I didn't know what was wrong with me and the best way I could explain it was that I forgot how to breathe.
How could I forget how to breathe? Easy. I must have died. At least, that's the conclusion my 8 year old brain came to.
Obviously, I did not die, but I have had many more panic attacks since then and I know that it can feel as if you are going to die. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for someone to be go to the ER due to a panic attack. It's actually happened to me!
While not everyone gets anxiety to the point of panic attacks, many people deal with anxiety on some level.
When I finally figured out that I had anxiety and panic attacks (at age 26) I started to seek out some help and resources to help me cope with my anxiety. Because of the tools I have gained, I can say that panic attacks and overly anxious feelings are extremely rare anymore. At this point, I will go two or more years between my small bouts with anxiety.
Here are some of the tools that I have found to be most helpful:
1) Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. If you follow me on Instagram, you might know that I really like positive talk. Does this mean my life is perfect and that I always feel positive? Not by a long shot. While I have always been much more of an optimist than a pessimist, I am prone to worry and worry starts in the mind. The first time a negative thought enters my mind, I have a choice to make - feed it or starve it. We all know that when you feed something it will grow and when you starve it, well... it will die. Anxiety occurs when our thoughts become bigger than life. So, if you want to stop anxiety in it's tracks, you have to starve those negative and worrisome thoughts.
2) Self talk. Just as I believe in positive thinking, I believe that your life follows your words. Words have power. I have had to learn not to give power to my fear and worry by speaking it out loud. Instead, I speak the opposite. And when I say, I speak, I literally mean, I speak.
3) I breathe. If you've given birth, you know that breathing is a powerful exercise. It calms you, improves flow of oxygen and lowers blood pressure among other things. When I am feeling anxious, I will close my eyes and take deep breaths in and exhale out until I feel calm.
4) Play a game of "then what". This may seem contradictory to replacing negative thoughts with positive ones but this is not meant to feed fear and worry as does dwelling on negative thoughts. Instead, playing out the possible outcomes can bring you back to reality. So, here is how it works. When I find myself worrying about something, I ask myself, "and then what?" I continue to ask myself this until I have come up with every possible outcome. Generally what happens is, I realize that in the end everything will be ok because most likely I am not going to die and if I do... well then... there's nothing else I can do! I know this may sound extreme but the thing about anxiety is that it often involves irrational fears. By doing this exercise, I am able to recognize that by addressing these fears instead of allowing them to paralyze me.
5) Mindfulness. I believe that this is one of the most powerful tools for combating anxiety. So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the act of being aware of what is currently going on. Basically, it is being present. Practicing mindfulness will keep your mind from wandering and entertaining thoughts that will cause fear and anxiety. One way I do this is when I drive. Instead of allowing my thoughts to run wild, I will look at the colors of the cars, landmarks, etc. Not only does this help keep anxious thoughts at bay but it will also help you to enjoy life. For example, in the scenario of driving, mindfulness will help you take in the scenery around you. I try to practice mindfulness anytime I am doing a "mindless" activity because these are the times my thoughts will get away from me most.
These are just a few of the skills I have learned over the years to help me cope with my anxiety. I am not a professional and, if you are dealing with severe or ongoing anxiety, I recommend that you make an appointment to see one.