Learning to accept my panic/anxiety disorder instead of fighting it or denying it, helped bring stability to my life. I spent many nights lying in bed, praying for a cure. Asking “Why me? Why can’t I just be normal?” The answers never came nor did a magic pill that took it all a way. As this is Mental Illness Awareness Week, this post continues the ramblings about my ongoing saga with mental illness and shares ways I’ve learned to cope and overcome.
I know I’ll most likely deal with anxiety for the rest of my life. The periods in-between episodes grow longer and the severity lessens, but even now I know I’ll feel that adrenaline race through my body again as my brain’s “fight or flight” response goes awry despite the logical center of my mind knowing without a doubt that “I am safe.” As life goes on, as it always does, I try live a healthy lifestyle in a futile effort to ward off the next attack. But as complacency gets in my way, I slack off and am not always successful in that area – especially when it comes to junk food and Diet Coke. I do know I feel better and stronger when I make healthy food choices, limit caffeine, exercise regularly, get a good night’s sleep and take my anti-anxiety medication as prescribed (a future blog post will be on medications).
Still the day comes when I’m faced with that wave of anxiety crashing down on me, forcing me toward the edge. Over the years I’ve become better equipped to force myself to take a step back from that edge instead of falling into the crevice. Having lived through this personal, sometimes lonely battle, I realized that something good has to come out of it. I know I am a stronger person for it and my hope is by sharing my experience I can help someone else in a similar situation. These strategies help me cope and get to the other side of a panic attack. Maybe they can help you or someone you know, maybe not. But, when I’m consumed with darkness, I’m willing to try anything (well almost anything) to come back into the light.
In no particular order, here are the ways I cope:
1. Accept the feelings and go with it. When I start to panic about the panicky feelings, it compounds everything for me. I’ve learned to just ride the initial waves, letting them flow through me. I know it can’t last for ever and I can handle the uncomfortable feelings for a few minutes.
2. Monitor self-talk. This one is one of the hardest for me. I have to stop my mind from wandering and make myself stop and remind myself that I am not dying. I don’t feel good, but I am not dying.
3. Refocus. I try to find a distraction for myself that is repetitive to help my thoughts get back on track. Some ways I’ve done this are knitting/crocheting (the counting of the stitches helps calm me done), focusing on my breathing, visualizing I’m somewhere else relaxing, etc.
4.Breathe Deeply. Taking several cleansing breaths helps. I’ll take a breath, hold it and let it out slowly. It starts to calm me and helps alleviate the heaviness in my chest.
5. Shake it out. This one looks kind of silly, but it really does help me. I stand up and shake my arms and legs out. It’s like I’m getting rid of the bad energy.
6. Talk it out. I have a few good friends I can go to, who understand me and can empathize – no judgements. They remind me I’ve been in this place before and I have the strength to leave it behind again.
7. Lend a hand. When I’m focusing on someone else and helping them, I’m not focused on my own problems. Having two young daughters, who always seem to need me, helps a lot. I can’t let them down. I have to move forward. They know I have anxiety attacks; I don’t hide it from them. On the other hand, I don’t want to scare them. I focus on them. I get through the next minute, the next hour, the next day. Minute by minute until eventually I’m back to feeling like myself again.
8. Get physical. I’ll go for a walk to clear my head. Even better for me is getting sweaty – a hard run, shooting hoops in the driveway or a Just Dance marathon on the Wii.
9. Massage. My tension and stress always ends up in my neck and shoulders. Using a tennis ball in a sock or a foam roller eases that tension and helps me relax. Better yet, I enlist the hands of my eleven-year old or six-year old. Stretching my neck, rolling my shoulders and tensing the muscles as tight as I can and then relaxing them also eases the tension.
10. Keep Faith. Lately I’ve struggled with this one. I’ve doubted God’s love. I’ve questioned how He can keep track of millions and millions of people and I can barely keep track of two girls. In Matthew 17:20, it says “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed…nothing will be impossible for you.” So despite my doubts and questions, I still pray. I don’t know if what I’m doing is the right thing or if it’ll matter in the end, but I do have that mustard seed’s worth of faith that God is somehow listening and that “I can do anything through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13).
Anyone else have any ideas for coping in the throes of a panic attack? I’d love to hear them. Share your thoughts in the comments below.