I know my triggers. I’ve been on anti-anxiety meds for almost 7 years now. But this doesn’t help me when it happens. It being a debilitating anxiety attack.
Sometimes it can come out of nowhere, like when it stems from something simple a loved one says, oblivious that their words or tone can throw me into a downward spiral, so down, in fact, that it’s hard to see past that moment.
Other times, the anxiety has been brewing, perhaps even for days on end, suffocating me and then, poof!, after a whirlwind anxiety attack, it has come, but then it’s gone, sort of like a little gift, like a tiny pin pricking out an overly blown balloon.
During my last anxiety attack on a nice summer’s day, I locked myself in the washroom with my trusty notebook for about half an hour or so, and sat on the toilet lid, had a good cry, journaled my feelings ITM (ie: what triggered me, how is my body responding, what thoughts am I telling myself?, and are they accurate?) and felt back to even keel after the fact. Writing helped me realize the story-lines I was telling myself weren’t truths.
For those of us who have anxiety disorders, we’re likely well aware of the things we can do to help prevent them, such as the combined cocktail of practising mindfulness, meditating, cutting out toxic people, seeking therapy, journaling, being active and removing triggers. But these are preventative measures, and don’t necessarily help in the moment, when you’re overwhelmed and unable to see any reason. Curious about what else I can do in the moment while going through an anxiety attack, I reached out to some experts.
Dr. Jessica Griffin describes an anxiety attack as a natural human response. “Anxiety attacks are a result of your sympathetic nervous system kicking into overdrive to keep you safe. Some anxiety is actually healthy and protective; however, when it results in an anxiety attack it can be extremely frightening and even debilitating for some people. For those who have never experienced an anxiety attack, it can feel like you are having a heart attack with sudden onset, evidenced by rapid heart rate, increased sweating, shortness of breath, and even trembling, dizziness, and feeling like you are suffocating,” says Griffin.
Here are her tips on how to walk yourself off the proverbial ledge when you’re in the midst of an anxiety attack:
- Tell yourself that this is a physiological reaction and it will pass.
- Remind yourself that you are NOT dying, it just feels that way.
- In order to calm down from a panic attack, tell yourself, “This is temporary,” and engage in exercises designed to decrease the hyperarousal in your body such as deep diaphragmatic breathing with slow controlled breaths in your stomach rather than your chest, tell yourself “I am safe,” and “this will pass.”
- Engage in reorienting techniques to ground you such as feel your feet planted firmly on the floor and identify five things you see, five things you smell, five things you taste, five things you hear, and five things you feel.
- Progressive muscle relaxation is another tool you can use which involves systematically squeezing and relaxing the different muscles in your body. There are a number of online videos you can freely access to learn this technique.
“When you are not having an anxiety attack, come up with a list of positive self-talk messages that you can tell yourself (or keep on a piece of paper or in your phone) when an anxiety attack does come on, as negative thinking worsens the severity of anxiety attacks,” says Griffin. “Of course, check in with your medical provider to ensure that this is anxiety and not a medical condition. There are also some medications that can increase agitation and anxiety, so it is important to rule out a medical reason for your symptoms.”
If you are in crisis or need someone to talk to, there are resources available to you. Consulting with your healthcare provider or another trusted professional is always a great start. You can also refer to our list of organizations with helpful resources.