Breathe out the Bugs: How to Deal with Panic Attacks
Like I mentioned in my last post, panic attacks happen pretty regularly for me. Living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder means learning and practicing coping mechanisms, breathing techniques, recognizing triggers, and educating friends and family alike to help you with these techniques and so they don’t think you’re a freak.
Okay, so maybe they think I’m a freak regardless.
RECOGNIZE YOUR TRIGGERS
Make sure you recognize your triggers. People often think I’m weird because I’m typically half an hour early to everything. I know that being late is a big trigger for me, so I do what I can to avoid it. Crowded places are a trigger, so I always have an exit strategy when attending social gatherings. Disorganization can be a trigger, so I keep a lot of spreadsheets. I’m currently obsessing over my expense spreadsheet and have already paid most of my bills for December - I’m writing this on December 8.
Clutter is a trigger, but I have two kids so not a lot can be done there. This is where anxiety meds comes in handy!
GO TO YOUR HAPPY PLACE
I have pretty severe social anxiety, so whenever I know I’m going to be in a social situation that is likely to cause an attack, I go to my happy place for a few minutes before entering the situation. Think of a place that makes you happy.
Go ahead, do it now. You’ll want to have this place already picked out so it’s easy to get there in your mind.
My happy place is a pond at a nature park by my parents’ house. I used to go there a lot as a teenager. It’s a large pond with woods behind it. There’s a path through the woods so you can get to the far end of the pond where it’s a bit more secluded. A tree fell over in those woods a long time ago, and it makes the perfect bench to sit on. You’re still hidden by the trees so other people don’t easily see you, and you still have a great view of the pond.
Do you have your happy place picked out? Imagine yourself there, and concentrate on your senses. What do you see, hear, smell, and feel? In my happy place I can see a few ducks floating across the pond. I can hear the sound of leaves rustling and birds chirping. I can smell the water and the grass. I can feel the breeze blowing against my cheek and through my hair.
Next time you know you’re going to enter into a situation that could trigger a panic attack, spend a few minutes in your happy place first. It’ll bring your heart rate down and put you in a better frame of mind to deal with the anxiety.
Breathing techniques are the best way to deal with a panic attack when it hits. As soon as you feel one coming on, take 10 deep breaths. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Have you seen The Green Mile? Remember how John Coffey could inhale people’s illnesses and exhale a swarm of bugs? My therapist suggested thinking of that, but instead of taking in the bad and then letting out the bad, you imagine breathing in the good and breathing out the bad. Remember to breathe slowly so you don’t pass out!
Practicing this breathing technique is important. I had known about breathing techniques for quite a while, but told my therapist that I never think to them when I’m in the midst of a panic attack. She said to make sure to practice breathing three to five times a day. An easy way to remember to do this is to attach your practice to an activity you’re sure to do, like going to the bathroom or eating. If you practice often, you are more likely to remember to do your breathing exercise when you have an attack.
EDUCATING FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Educating friends and family about how to help you cope is also very important. I’m not always great at remembering to breathe or go to my happy place, but I have wonderful friends who will remind me to breathe or ask how they can help. One of my partners will ask people prior to social events if there is a safe place for me to escape to if I start getting overwhelmed, and he keeps an eye on my body language. There have been numerous social gatherings where he’s orchestrated a swift exit at the first sign of my fleeting sanity.
The key to beating anxiety is to stay on top of it. Take your meds if you have them, do your breathing exercises, go to your happy place, and remember that it’s not the end of the world – no matter how much it might feel like just that.
Next time I’ll talk about the affect anxiety has had on my sex life. (Mom, you may want to skip this one!)