Those who know me well know I struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. I always have and probably always will. Today, I pretty much have a handle on it; I understand it. But when I was younger—well, that’s another story.
As a child, I really didn’t understand my panic attacks. Talking about it or acknowledging it was taboo. It was a thing that I hated about myself and feared immensely. Growing up, I thought I was “abnormal” (a term that I often used to describe myself—just ask my parents). I felt like all my friends were so normal … and then there was me.
Anyone who’s had a panic attack will tell you it’s an absolutely terrifying experience. (I won’t go into details about exactly what happens to me when I have a full blown panic attack—let’s just say, it is extremely unpleasant. Extremely.) Much as I don’t enjoy this part of me, I no longer see myself as abnormal. Today, I (for the most part) see myself as an average person who, like so many, struggles with something less than awesome.
I don’t like it, but I do accept it. And I have a strategy for it—a strategy that has stopped many panic attacks in their tracks. It’s worked so well for me, I though I’d share my approach with you.
Steps for dealing with an oncoming panic attack:
- Breathe, deeply and slowly. This is unequivocally the first (and maybe most important) step in warding off an panic attack, in my opinion. Breathe in through your nose, filling you belly then your lungs, and out through your mouth. Do this over and over. Long, slow, deep breaths. In and out.
- Find a place to lie down, if possible. Try to relax your body. Keep breathing.
- Tell yourself that you are not in any physical danger. Though it may feel like something terrible is going to happen, tell yourself that what you are experiencing is not life-threatening—that you are safe.
- Keep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Invite the panic in. It’s banging on the door and it wants to knock it down. But don’t let it barge in. Don’t exert all of your energy trying to force it out. Just relax and let it in. By doing this, you will regain some control. With this, you become a willing participant rather than a victim.
- See your panic attack for what it is: your body’s coping mechanism for a perceived danger. It is not the enemy, but rather a part of you that thinks it is being helpful. It’s not the monster you think it is; it is well intentioned; it’s kicking your body into gear to handle what it perceives to be an emergent situation, even though it is not.
- Accept it. Don’t fear it. Make peace with it.
- Know that if your panic attack does takes over, it’s okay. Let it. It’s not the end of the world. This, too shall pass.
More times than not, I am able to keep my panic attacks at bay with this approach—but not always. When I do succumb—when the panic takes over—I’ll admit I get very upset and I start feeling sorry for myself. But with each step backwards, I remind myself that I am a work in progress. I try to see each failed attempt as a learning… as a forward step on my journey towards emotional peace. Though it’s not always easy, I work very hard at keeping this perspective.
I know that my panic attacks are not a thing of the past. I know they will strike again—and that’s okay. I have learned that accepting this imperfect part of me is much easier than the immense pressure I used to place on myself trying to will it away.
For more useful information, check out Embracing the Fear: Learning To Manage Anxiety & Panic Attacks by Judith Bemis and Amr Barrada. This book has become my bible for anxiety and panic. I’ve referenced it so many times, it’s got more earmarked pages, circled paragraphs and underlined phases than I care to admit.
Have you ever had a panic attack? Do you have an approach that works for you?