Coping Skills to Manage Anxiety and Panic Attacks
You might know the feeling, it starts in your stomach, your vision starts to get blurry, suddenly it seems like you can’t breathe. The experience I am describing is called an anxiety attack, often confused for a heart attack when experienced by those unaware of the mental health experience. Anxiety and panic attacks can feel similar and are sometimes used interchangeably, but their root causes are not the same. In an anxiety attack, the person knows the trigger that started the overwhelming feelings and is sometimes a gradual response to the stressor. In a panic attack, the cause of the physiological response is unknown. These experiences are highly disruptive as they often occur at work, school, or other public places. It is common to feel secondary emotions after an anxiety attack like shame or embarrassment. Anxiety attacks can cause intense worry about feeling like your body is out of your control and fear that another unexpected attack will happen. I hope that the following coping skills can help you regain your power during or after a distressing anxiety attack.
Use your Senses
Grounding through your five senses, (smell, touch, taste, hear, see) is a great way to bring yourself back to the present and get out of your head when experiencing panic. I like to tell my clients it is difficult to be cold and thinking about their anxiety at the same time. The next time you feel like an anxiety attack might be coming on, make your way to some ice and try holding it in your hand for as long as you can. In the car? Blast your A/C as cold as you can on your face for as long as you can bear it.
Take a Breather
I am sure you have heard this one before, but it helps! Set a 3-minute timer on your phone and focus on deep breathing until the timer goes off. My favorite exercise for this is 4 square breathing. In this exercise, you inhale for 4, pause for 4, exhale for 4, pause for 4. You only have three minutes to lose, so it is a low-risk time investment. My clients often report their anxiety lowering by several degrees after pausing for just a few minutes of deep breathing. YouTube can be a great resource to find educational videos to guide you if this step feels uncomfortable.
Do a Brain Dump
Brain dumping is a mindfulness exercise where you take a piece of paper and write down whatever thought pops into your head for a set amount of time. The page serves as a space to move your thoughts out of your head and into a concrete space. You can decide what you want to do with the page when you are finished. I suggest burning it if you feel up to it.
Although it might feel like you are having a heart attack and fear that you may die, it is not possible to die from a panic or anxiety attack. Burning off some of the residual adrenaline can be helpful. Get outside and go for a mental health walk, see if you can describe the grass or sky in excruciating detail. Look up yoga movements on your phone and try a few minutes of mindful movement to help regulate your nervous system.
Check for Tension
Are you clenching your jaw right now? What about your shoulders? Can’t feel anything? That is a great starting point in realizing the amount of awareness you have inside your body. We often get so caught up in our minds we lose track of what our bodies are doing. Take a few minutes to try a progressive muscle relaxation or body scan starting with the crown of your head, working your way down your body until you have reached your toes. This exercise allows you to slow down and see where you are holding on to tension in your body. Progressive muscle relaxation is another skill to look up online for guidance if it is new to you.
The way to get the most out of these tools is to practice them when you are not in a high-stress situation so that when that stressful event hits, you are an expert in the skill. Sometimes just having a plan for when anxiety strikes can reduce some of the stress. I hope these skills are helpful and a reminder that you can take back control over your mind, body, and response to anxiety.