I will never forget my first panic attack. It is a vivid memory etched in my brain that makes my skin crawl when I think about it. It happened when I was 30 years old, and I thought I was dying.
The morning of the day it happened, I drank a cup of coffee and played a couple hands of the card game Golf with my friend Gina at her house. Then I went back to my house to pack for a weekend trip to my family’s cabin. My husband, at the time, was out of town on business, and I had been handling our two dogs on a solo mission.
The panic attack struck while I was driving my car, with the dogs in the backseat, at a very high rate of speed in the pouring rain.
I immediately called my mom, a nurse for 35 years, for assurance I wasn’t having a heart attack. I was passing a hospital and needed to know if I should go to the emergency room. She told me to pull over and breathe deeply while holding one nostril shut and exhaling through the other. My palms were sweaty, I was clammy, my heart was racing, and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. It was a god-awful feeling that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
That is how my ongoing battle with anxiety and panic began.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I am a thoroughly nervous creature at heart. I tend to think of worst-case scenarios when confronted with unknown situations. When you have anxiety and panic disorder, the worst-case scenario mindset runs your emotions off the rails and into a rabbit hole of worry. Anxiety whispers in your ear and convinces you your worst fears are true.
Many people do not fully understand anxiety, or my true diagnosis, panic disorder.
Anxiety attacks differ from panic attacks, but only slightly. Both are terrifying, and both cause your body to physically respond. When attacks subside, you are left breathless and absolutely exhausted.
So, how do I live with my condition? How do I function?
My Tips for Beating My Brain
I am extremely transparent about my struggle with mental health, and yes, I am medicated. I will not divulge the type of medication I take but rest assured, I do so under a physician’s care.
2. Breathing Exercises
I hold one nostril shut and take a deep breath in through the open nostril. I pause, holding the breath, and slowly breathe out through the other nostril. This allows for a more controlled breathing pattern, thus helping to even things out. When your brain is concentrating on something else, the panic begins to subside.
In the grips of a panic attack, things become wonky. Fortunately, focusing attention on details of my surroundings helps break the attack. So, I look around the room to identify five things I can see, four things I can touch, three things I can hear, and two things I can smell. That exercise helps me center myself and allow logic to creep back in.
4. Cold Therapy
A cold washcloth or an ice pack on the back of my neck or chest helps to shock my system out of attacks. It allows me to think more about the cold than whatever I am myopically considering.
As my mom grew tired of me calling her at 3 a.m. whenever I was in a blind panic, she made a suggestion. She told me to turn on a movie that I had seen multiple times (but not one that I felt I would need to stay up all night watching the ending to). My go-to movies are Indian Summer, Home Alone, and Dirty Dancing. I have seen them hundreds of times over the past twelve years and tuning into them actually does help. Familiarity provides comfort.
Advice for Others
If you know someone suffering from anxiety or panic attacks, you can help in several ways.
Let them talk it out with you. But do not try to point out that they have nothing to panic about. This is not helpful in any way, shape, or form. Instead, try to be soothing. Encourage them to dim the lights and talk about something benign. Or simply sit there with them in silence. Yelling at them or berating them will be of no help whatsoever. Think of them as you would about a child who is scared of the monster under the bed.
As someone with anxiety that has gradually waned over the years, I have learned to cope. However, this is not the case for everyone in the world. Practice patience and care.
Do you struggle with anxiety and panic? Please leave a comment about how you help yourself overcome them.