Since I’ve started this blog, more of my friends have become aware that I struggle with anxiety attacks. The main question I’ve gotten so far has been, “So what do you do when you get an anxiety attack?”
Generally, my panic attacks are signals to me that I’m dealing with too much stress. It’s like all of the anxiety I’ve been trying to ignore is about to all topple down on my head. I had one this week while I was in church. The strange thing is that I often get panic attacks when I’m not doing stressful things. Being in church isn’t stressful. Unfortunately, being at church gives me a time to sit down and really think. (And yes, I promise I’m listening to the sermon. My mind just has the strange habit of running in five different directions at the same time.) I could tell one was coming on less than fifteen minutes into the service, so, as I’ve done numerous times before, I had to quietly excuse myself to go wait for it to pass. Nowadays, however, I have a few tactics to fight back, things I didn’t know just a few years ago.
What does a panic attack feel like?
Panic attacks differ in severity and symptoms. One of my first panic attacks in college was what I hear is quite common. One minute, I was sitting there, dragging myself through my physics homework, and the next minute, I was convinced I was having a heart attack. It took my dad fifteen minutes and a glass of apple juice (my comfort drink) to convince me I wasn’t going to die. The attack I experienced at church this week, however, didn’t speed my heart up like the other one. It was the kind that made me feel like I was going to explode, like all the energy in my body was trying to escape but had nowhere to go. Those panic attacks often end in tears, tears that have no purpose other than to let out the pressure inside me. Whatever the symptoms, anxiety attacks often give out warning signs beforehand that can help people head them off at the pass. They can’t always be stopped, but with enough knowledge and self-awareness, they can be made much more bearable.
Signs you might be headed for an anxiety attack:
- Shortness of breath, especially if you have no reason to breathe hard
- A rapid, sudden rise in heart rate
- An unusually high number of tics
- Sudden restlessness and high amounts of energy
- Crying for no reason
Basic Tips for dealing with an anxiety attack:
Here are some of the ways I’ve found to deal with anxiety attacks. These are also good ways to try to avert one when you know it’s going to happen. Some of this is from my personal experience, and other parts are methods I’ve found through research. Remember, these aren’t medical prescriptions I’m giving you. They’re simply methods of handling stress that you can pick from, choosing what’s works for you.
The first thing I do when I know I’m going to have a panic attack is pray. I understand that a prayer isn’t a magic wand to fix my problem. Just like getting a cold every now and then is part of being a human being on this messed up world, having panic attacks is part of having an anxiety disorder. When I turn to God though, I know I’m talking to the only One in the entire universe who understands exactly what I’m going through, who can feel what I’m feeling. I meditate on His Word, taking comfort in it, knowing that He’s using it to speak to me. When I focus my heart on Him, I can keep looking at the light of my Savior, knowing that He loves me, and one day, He will make it all go away, knowing that this shall soon pass. Possibly my favorite verse to sum up my feelings is Psalm 31:7
“I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul.”
2. Peaceful Environment (I choose nature.) – Whenever I’m having a panic attack, I’ve found one of the best things to do is remove myself from my current setting if it’s possible. Usually, the most calming place I can find to go is outside. I don’t feel boxed in by the walls, so it feels easier to breathe. I like to sit and contemplate how God made the air, the sky, the sun, and the plants around me. It feels more real, I guess. It reminds me that no matter what I’m stressed about, I am still loved by the God who cares enough to care for plants and animals, and I know that He loves me so much more than them. It’s not unusual for someone to go and sit outside by themselves, so it gives me a bit more space to think and pray and practice my breathing without people trying to gain my attention. If you can’t go outside, even switching a different room in your building might help.
3. Deep breaths – Slow, deep breaths can help slow your heart rate and make sure you’re bringing enough oxygen to the brain. I know that when I’m having an anxiety attack, my first natural reaction is to try to hold my breath. It only makes sense that if you’re having a panic attack, which happens in the brain, you’re going to have a hard time getting rid of it if you deprive your brain of oxygen. One of my favorite techniques is one my dad taught me: you take a long, deep breath through your nose, then you let it out slowly through your mouth. It’s a good process to keep up until your attack starts to die down.
4. Cold Water – I know nothing about this one scientifically. All I know is that taking a sip of cold water gives my throat (which usually feels constricted) a quick shock, just something to break the insensity I feel in the muscles.
5. Physical Touch – This tip is so imortant to me that I’ll be doing an entire blog on it later. According to the article, “Touching Makes You Healthier,” by Health.com’s Norine Dworkin-McDaniel, studies at the University of North Carolina showed that hugs (a form of physical contact) raised levels of the chemical oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is like the antidote to the chemical Corisol, which is a stress chemical. The article also says that holding hands has a similar effect. WebMD says, “One study found that receiving regular massages can help lower blood pressure, anxiety, and stress hormones in those with hypertension.” My wonderful husband, Stephen, will give me a “light rub” (as I call it) whenever I need it. A light rub is much like a leg massage, arm massage, or back massage, only the physical touch is much lighter, more like simply touching the skin rather than moving into the tissue. He’s helped me avert and stop a number of panic attacks that way.
6. Exercise – I’ve had anxiety attacks a few times that were so bad they even happened while I was exercising. The good thing about exercising during a panic attack, however, is that as soon as that “fight or flight” feeling of fear rushes through your body, you’re already doing something about it. I feel empowered when I’m exercising because I feel like I’m fighting back. When the fear pushes me, I push harder. The New York Times Health Guide article, “Exercise’s Effects on Other Conditions” by A.D.A.M. reports that aerobic exercise raises the levels of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline in the brain, chemicals that boost self-esteem. In my experience, I’ve found that exercising at least three times a week helps me prevent panic attacks. (Four times or more is even better.)
7. Music – In an NPR interview with Andrew Rossetti, a musical therapist at the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, he stated that by 2011, the center had kept a music therapy department for 19 years. In his interview with the host, Ira Flatow, he talked about how his job was to play music for patients at the hospital with referrals from the doctor, especially in stressful situations like right before a procedure.
8. Aromatherapy – The Huffington Post promoted an article, Aromatherapy: Allowing Scents to Heal Us by Julie Chen, M.D. Dr. Chen writes,
“When we are exposed to an aroma, the molecules are exposed to our olfactory epithelium, our nasal receptors. The transmission of this signal from the exposure of the fragrance molecule to our brain leads to interpretation of the scent in our brain centers, which involve memory, sensory perception, general processing center, and to a gland in our brain that mediates chemical secretion into our blood and other parts of our brain, just to name a few effects.”
I mean, it makes sense if you think about it. Recently, my husband started to brew some coffee before I woke up. I was nearly jolted awake as soon as I smelled it. Unknowingly, I had bought the same kind of coffee my great-grandmother keeps in her house. The smell of the coffee immediately triggered one of my memories, and I suddenly had the sensation that I was on vacation with my family in Oklahoma like when I was a little girl. There are probably some scents that are disagreeable to you simply because you associate them with negative experiences, and others, that bring you happiness. And depending on your preference, you can choose the $1 Walmart candles, or buy the pure oil extracts from companies like doTerra. If you’re not sure where to get started, here are some suggestions from Dr. Chen that often help with anxiety:
9. Diet – Technically, everyone’s technically on a diet, only not everyone is on a good diet. I’ve found with my anxiety that too much processed sugar or too many bad fats make my tics go through the roof and make me more likely to have an anxiety attack. If you feel like you’re more likely to have an anxiety attack, or if you’ve just had one, I would suggest double-checking your food for the next few days to make sure it’s nutritious brain food.
WebMD’s Brain researcher and ADHD expert Daniel Amen, MD, suggests good brain foods are foods that are high in protein (eggs, beans, and nuts, for example), low in simple carbohydrates (foods like sugar, corn syrup, and white starches) higher in complex carbohydrates (like vegetables and choice fruits), and that have omega-3 fatty acids (such as certain fish, Brazilian nuts, and olive oil). The article suggests that while a diet won’t cure ADHD (which is a neurological disorder, often linked to other neurological disorders), feeding the brain the right food can help reduce the symptoms.
It’s like feeding an athlete: if you feed him junky food, he won’t perform his best. If you feed him the food he needs, however, he’s going to perform at the top of his game. Your brain is the same way. If you feed it crap, you shouldn’t expect a great performance out of your already challenged stress center.
What about me? (I mean you.)
You just need to find what works for you. Obviously, it’s not going to be convenient every time you have an anxiety attack to run outside with your candle, headphones, Bible, water bottle, running shoes, and best friend to give you a massage. It is, however, likely that you’ll have access to a few of these options, and you’ll always have access to God, to cry out and ask Him to pour out His mercy on you. All you need to do is ask, and He will give. It will probably take you years to figure out how to handle your own panic attacks.
Every brain is different, and every soul is different. The important thing is to ask for help when you need it from God and others. Panic attacks are far more common to people than I used to think. I’ve had countless people tell me they have panic attacks, people I never would have guessed at. The important thing is knowing what works for you.
Isaiah 43:2-3a – “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
God never promises we won’t go through trials. In fact, He expects it. I firmly believe this isn’t simply to make us miserable, however. Instead, I believe He’s preparing us for something better. He’s teaching us to turn to Him in times of trouble, and He’s making us resiliant so we can run the race set before us.
Isaiah 48:10 – “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.”
An aspiring athlete must train hard to become professional. If her muscles aren’t aching by the time she’s finished with her practice, it probably means it wasn’t a very good practice. The actual training hurts, but when the athlete finally finishes that race first, she knows all the pain was worth it. It made her strong.
In the same way, our journey through our faith shouldn’t be easy all the time. If it is, that means we’re not taking our faith seriously. Whether it’s anxiety attacks, cancer, financial hardships, broken relationships, death of a loved one, or religious persecution, we all face our dragons on this earth. The question is, who turns to Christ for strength? Who will finish the race strong?
Have you struggled with anxiety attacks? How do you deal with them? If so, please share in your questions or thoughts Comment Box. Also, don’t forget to sign up for our weekly newsletter, where you can get extra information on neurological disorders, healthy living, education, and spiritual encouragement. As always, thanks for reading!