When Panic Attacks: How to manage your anxiety.
If you’ve ever had the experience of a panic attack, or an episode of extreme anxiety, you know that it can be one of the most frightening experiences of your life. It seems to come out of nowhere. Your heart races, you sweat, you may have uncontrollable tears, your breathing becomes labored. Many people even experience chest pain and think they’re having a heart attack. It’s a very scary experience. I’ve had them myself.
What to do about a panic or anxiety attack
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of one of these attacks is when they happen in public. Our fear is already heightened, and then there’s the added stress of thinking,
What if I freak out right here? In front of everybody? Will the grocery store cashier know how to help me?!
Let’s say, for illustration purposes, this happens in the grocery store check-out line.
First, excuse yourself from the line. Leave the cart if you need to, the melting ice cream is the least of your worries at this point. Getting calmed down and grounded just became priority.
Going to the restroom is usually the best option. There are stalls where you can be alone, accommodations in case you get sick, and sinks with water, which you’ll need.
Once you’re alone, sit down (the toilet in the stall will do just fine.) and focus on your breathing. No fancy exercise here,
Think about the air coming in and out, ideally through your nose. Think about it filling your lungs.
One of the challenges, is that the attack feels so scary, that you feel like you actually might die. Time also seems to slow down to a screeching halt; two minutes seems like twenty.
Remind yourself that you are NOT dying, and this will pass. You will get through it, and it will end.
Next, use a grounding exercise. These are designed to bring your awareness and your body into the present moment. Being in the present reminds our bodies that we are actually safe from harm and reduces that adrenaline, cortisol and all those other handy chemicals from being excreted when they’re not needed.
Why we have panic attacks
You see, back when we were living in caves, our ancestors needed to be able to out-run the saber-toothed tiger without giving it a second thought. So when our bodies sensed danger, often before our cognitive brains could process the thought, all of these super-duper chemicals would kick into high gear, making it possible for extra blood to be carried to our extremities allowing us to flee….FAST.
When anxiety kicks into high gear while we’re living our daily lives, it’s because our bodies think there is imminent danger. We need to convince it that it’s mistaken.
Grounding exercises are clinically proven to help people with panic, anxiety, extreme distress and even that feeling of being “outside your body”. Here’s how to do it:
Grounding Exercise Instructions:
Sit comfortably (standing works too, if you have no other choice) and look around you. Then identify:
5 things you see (example from inside a bathroom stall: a roll of toilet paper, my purse, the latch on the door, my shoes, jenny’s number on the wall.)
4 things you feel (my hands feeling the texture of my jeans, my tongue on my lip, the air going into my nose, my shoes sticking to the floor.)
3 things you hear (toilet flushing, dripping water, the words, “cleanup in aisle 4”)
2 things you smell (disinfectant…lets hope. 🙂 and anything else that may be lingering.)
1 thing you taste (put some gum or a mint in your mouth, get some water from the sink and sip it, or just be aware of your own saliva.)
Focusing on each of the five senses will help bring you back into the present moment and will help your body come back to baseline. If all else fails, focus on your breath. Always bring it back to the breath.
When it’s all over, thank your body for cooperating, get your ice cream and go home.
Whether this is the first or hundred-and-first time this has happened, seek a mental health professional such as a counselor or therapist to help you get to the root of these attacks and remediate them. You don’t have to live like this.