**DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional, but just someone who’s suffered for years with anxiety and has come out on the other side mostly unscathed. Always seek the advice of a medical professional first.
I first started having severe anxiety problems when I was about 14. I distinctly remember being at my grandmother’s house on vacation with my mom and experiencing what I thought was just shortness of breath, which turned out to be a full blown panic attack. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to be able to say, “Oh yeah, that’s anxiety”. Instead, I ignored it and said my back hurt. For years, the physical symptoms of anxiety plagued me without any real thought towards it. My most common symptom was muscle spasms in my mid and lower back that made breathing nearly impossible. This would strike at seemingly random times, often when I was no longer ‘worried’ or ‘anxious’ and on one occasion took me all the way to urgent care.
The first time I had the can’t-catch-your-breath-pacing-around-like-a-weirdo attack was while working at my local movie theater. I was working the concession stand, which is essentially a long rectangle with a stock room in the back. It was a midday, boring shift but something triggered me. Maybe an ex came with their new beau? Maybe a surprising text message? Who knows, surely I don’t remember now. But what I do remember is pacing, panicking and meticulously counting the concrete blocks that formed the managers/box office right ahead of me. Over and over and over again. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. And again. And again. And again. Why eight? I don’t know honestly. Maybe it was from dance lessons as a kid or maybe something about eight just resonates with me.
But in the end, something had to give. After a breakdown call to my General Physician who referred me to a psychiatrist, I was diagnosed as high-functioning panic disorder and prescribed therapy and medication. I first went to therapy my second year in college when I realized that what I deemed my ‘crazy’ was affecting those around me negatively. I’d had some latent realizations of trauma from my past and it hit me like a freight train at 19. Therapy was amazing for me, but that isn’t a universal experience. From a spasmodic 14 year old girl to now, over a decade later, here I am kicking it with my Anxiety Demon like I would a friend. I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks over the years, so here they are. I hope they can at least provide a reference if not a helpful trick or two to anyone else that suffers.
Learn the early signs
The tightening in your chest, the tunnel vision, the suddenly-fuzzy hearing, the rush of heat to your face and neck. Learning the early signs of an anxiety attack can be the most crucial thing. By learning the trigger signs, you may be able to slow or completely avoid a panic attack. That’s how I was able to truly control my little Anxiety Demon – because I figured out how she operated. As soon as I feel those few rushed heartbeats, I take deep breaths and try to relax. Normally, whatever I’m worked up over doesn’t really matter.
Don’t mix medication and caffeine
I learned this the hard way one night while working at the local haunted house. I took my prescribed medication because I was panicking – then immediately chugged a Monster Energy drink because I was tired. BOY – was that the worst idea. Never in my life have I felt what my body felt during the next hour after drinking that energy drink – I could feel my heart palpitating in slow motion. (In general, high levels of caffenation will make your anxiety worse no matter what, so be careful when engaging with coffee, energy drinks, etc. if you’re not used to it).
Find something simple and stupid that soothes you
When I started out, counting made me feel better for some reason. I have no history of OCD or any other numbers related ailments, but counting my breath, counting the ceiling tiles, counting the steps it took to get around a building mid-attack was comforting and soothing. A lot of relaxation apps will have you count your breath as a wind down activity, so there must be some reasoning to the numbers. I also used to run my hands under cold water, especially if I had an attack while working. I wanted to cool down – bring my senses down – as quickly as possible. I wanted to extinguish the fire roaring in my head and chest and by running cold water on my hands, it almost immediately brought a sense of ‘Oh yeah, I’m back now’.
Just know, as it starts it will also stop
One of the toughest things about anxiety is that you truly do believe that you will die. That you will always feel this way. That you will never be able to have a deep breath ever again. But that’s the thing: anxiety is just a mental block. It will stop, you will breath again, you just have to let it either pass or run it course naturally. You can create a mantra to remind yourself of this during the attacks or just let yourself feel the flow and know that it will end.
Create a safety net
Whether it’s an aromatherapy inhaler, special bubble bath or your favorite food, create a small cache of things that make you feel better or grounded. I carried an aromatherapy inhaler in my purse for years that my grandma gave me after my first panic attack. I still have it and occasionally use it when I’m feeling full of lightning. Certain scents are good on the senses and can help you unwind like lavender, jasmine, bergamot and chamomile.
Download apps or find books to help
These days, I’m sure you find yourself mindlessly scrolling social media, creating an even worse social anxiety experience for yourself like we all do. Sometimes taking a break from social media while staying connected to your phone can help. I’m a personal fan of Candy Crush (proud level 644) or a meditation app like Headspace. Not a phone person? Never fear, books are here! Over the last year, I’ve built quite the arsenal of books to help me understand my issues. From Emotional Detox to First, We Make The Beast Beautiful, there are plenty of books worth checking out about emotions and anxiety.
Talk to someone
The easiest way to come down from a panic attack is to discuss it with someone. When you’re walking someone else through the panic and fears you have, it may be easier to realize how outlandish or wild they are. Whether it’s your therapist, a friend, or a partner/spouse, talking it out can release the hold that your Anxiety Demon has on you. It can ease the tension while allowing you space to breathe.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger due to depression, contact 911. If you or someone you know is in need of support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255); En Español 1-888-628-9454 or text “HELLO” to 741741 the Crisis Text Line.