Congratulations. You’ve made it another day in what I affectionately call “The Age of Anxiety.”
Anxiety…that crippling feeling that the worst thing possible is going to happen to you and to everyone you love. Your child will probably get sick and die if you don’t wash their hands a dozen times. You will fail the test tomorrow because you’re stupid. Everyone secretly hates you. You need to burn 1000 calories before you leave the gym or else you will never find a boyfriend. If you’re two minutes late again, you’ll probably be fired. And who knows what horrible news is at the top of your inbox…
Do these thoughts sound familiar to you? If so, welcome to 2021 in America. Anxiety levels have been busting off charts since 2007, the same year the iPhone was released. Probably not a coincidence, but that is a post for another time. Today I’d like to give some practical tips on how to stave off a panic attack.
Panic attacks are different from anxiety. For one, you aren’t diagnosed with “a panic attack.” Panic attacks are actually specifiers for other disorders like anxiety or depression. A diagnostic label would read something like “Major Depressive Disorder, mild, single episode, with panic attacks.” There is, however, a Panic Disorder, which is essentially having panic attacks plus having intense fear that you will have another panic attack resulting in avoidance behaviors. Avoidance behaviors include staying at home, pushing away friends and family, drowning yourself in substances, etc. Unfortunately, avoidance behaviors only serve to heighten the stress and panic in the long run, though they alleviate the distress in the short-term. It really is an awful cycle.
So, let’s get down to what actually brought you to this article. What can one do to stave off a panic attack? Well, as you can imagine, there isn’t just a quick fix, or there wouldn’t be this upsurge in Generalized Anxiety Disorder diagnoses in the last decade. However, there are really good tips and tricks you can carry with you to help you in addition to seeking professional treatment such as psychotherapy and/or anxiolytic medications.
The key to staving off a panic attack is to nip it in the bud. Panic attacks are something like sneezing or synapses firing in that they reach a threshold, and it’s really difficult to stop them once they cross it. At some point, you need to just ride the wave and pray for it to end. So, before you step over that threshold, it’s important to take control of your sense and steady the wheel. One way to do this is to practice grounding techniques. One popular grounding technique is called the “5-4-3-2-1 exercise.” This involves stopping what you’re doing and naming five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste right now. Might seem simple, but trust me, it can really help.
So, the instant you feel your heart race, your stomach tighten, your face flush, your thoughts race, or your hands shake you must immediately stop, breathe in deeply, and practice the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. Engage your five senses and draw your mind away from whatever it is that is making your spiral. This will calm your body and the symptoms will slowly decrease. With time, you will be able to recognize the panic feelings before they overtake you, and you will easily guide your body into a calm space rather than a place of intense fear. Ideally, the panic attacks will cease altogether, which is possible.
Another tip to decrease panic attacks is to monitor your anxiety so you can start to target precipitating factors and triggers. There are likely certain events or thought patterns that set off the panic, and it will serve you well to identify these trends in your life. Documenting triggers will help you to be prepared and to navigate around triggers in your life. For example, you might notice panic attacks increase after spending time with a certain friend. This can help you to process what it is that person is saying or doing that causes the panic so you can act accordingly (e.g. set better boundaries with the friend, talk to them about how you are feeling, prepare yourself to direct the conversation in more meaningful directions, etc.).
Another helpful tip is to practice mindfulness and prayer exercises. Mindfulness is an excellent way to empty your mind in order to fill it with God. As you practice focusing on your breathing and slowing down, gently invite the Holy Spirit to join you and affectionately tell Jesus you love Him. If you get your body into a place of calm every morning and evening, it will be harder for your body to launch into the tense mess it becomes during a panic attack. You want your instinct to be “calm and cool” rather than “tense and panicked.” You can train your body to relax in stressful situations by practicing body calming every day.
Some final tips to help decrease panic attacks in the long run is to go on daily walks, eat well, and get into a regular sleep routine. The Health Psychology field has exploded in the last 20 years because there has been so much research supporting the connection between food, sleep, exercise, and mood. Sometimes simply getting a good night’s rest on a regular basis can actually cure depression. It’s rather mind blowing.
With that being said, the crux of it all is to slow down and remember that you are immeasurably loved by our Creator and that it’s pointless to try to control everything. Allow yourself to let go and take stock of your surroundings in the present. Remind yourself it will be okay.