I’m going to start off by saying that I have been, in fact, a long term sufferer of frequent anxiety attacks. There is no one who understands what it is we go through other than people who have experienced these episodes. If anyone thinks they do, I call bullcrap. You can describe the symptoms to a doctor, or therapist, or even a family member, but it is like trying to describe the feeling of not receiving enough oxygen when you breathe in. Sure you can picture it, but there are no words to actually describe the feeling we endure when we have an attack.
It has been a long time since Ive had one that really took a toll on me. Due to acid reflux, not wanting to get it treated (because I can’t stand pills.. I don’t even take tylenol), and about 8 years of extremely heavy drinking, my esophagus was raw. I almost NEVER get ill, but there was a bug going around that ended up making me vomit. The first two times I threw up that night it was liquid and remnants of supper. The third time there was about 3-4 tablespoons of blood. Now, that doesn’t seem like a lot, but for anyone to see any amount of blood in their vomit.. it is extremely alarming. I felt myself go into “Oh ****” mode. My heart began racing and I could feel the adrenaline instantly begin coursing through my veins.
A few doctor visits later I had to get an EGD done. It’s a procedure where they put you under and use an instrument to look at the lining of both your stomach and esophagus. Now, if you are like me, not being in control of a situation is by far the most prominent catalyst for an anxiety attack. Truthfully, if I did not have a son that was turning 2 shortly, I don’t think I would have gone. I would have slipped back into the mindset that my body will heal itself. While this is true, and your body CAN heal itself in phenomenal ways, the damage I did to myself required attention. My body would not be able to heal itself sufficiently.
Days later I was laying on the table in a hospital gown, trying to focus on whatever was directly above me. My wife and son were right beside me up until I was wheeled back into the operating room. They helped, but it took every ounce of knowledge and experience of my anxiety disorder to keep from flipping out and turning into a hot mess. Again, there are no words to describe this feeling. If you have ever had a bonefide attack, you know exactly what I was going through. Body trembling, heart racing, can’t seem to catch your breath, you feel very hot.. there was so much going on in my head that I just couldn’t stop it all, even though I had learned how to control a lot of it over time.
There are several methods you can employ. I can tell you what I did to help, but anxiety is not something a pill can fix. I’ve taken medication for this disorder, but I found that the best way to control it was simply to embrace it and realize what is happening. Once you understand “Ok, this is an anxiety attack.” then you can begin calming yourself down. You NEED that first step though. You have to keep telling yourself what it is, because your mind will race in other directions. You will think that you’re dying, that you’re going to not get enough oxygen, you’ve got some form of cancer, among many other things. When you look at it that way, you begin to realize that these thoughts are completely irrational. You only fully understand how absurd your thought process is after the fact when you have completely calmed down. To reiterate, you ABSOLUTELY MUST recognize it is an anxiety attack before you can continue.
Close your eyes and draw a box over and over again. I’ve changed this method to suit my own needs a you will do. Use it as a building block to find whatever way best fits you in order to control your breathing. As you breathe in, draw the line up. Hold your breath (not for too long), and draw the line across. Exhale as you draw the line down. Hold your breath (again, not for too long) and draw the line back to where you began. This is, again, to be used as a block to develop your own breathing technique.
Breathe From Your Stomach
Place your hands on your stomach. You do this so you can literally feel your stomach rise and fall with each breath you take. You will find that you’ll lose your concentration several times, and suddenly you’re breathing shallow and from your chest again. Putting both (or a single hand) on your stomach makes you aware of this and allows you to shift back to a proper breathing technique.
This may sound contradictory to my previous statement of “Recognize that it is an anxiety attack”, but it is cyclical. You need to acknowledge what it is to forget about it. Please trust me when I say this works. It took me a long time to realize this and I promise it will help. Recognize it is an attack, then focus on something. Until you get better at honing in on whatever takes your mind off of whatever is going on, focus on your breathing. It’s going to take every ounce of mental strength to maintain the rise and fall of your stomach. The moment you begin to slip and panic, remember it’s an anxiety attack and start the process over again.
Look at the clock the moment you realize you’re having an attack and understand that in about 15-20 minutes you’ll be fine. Generally that’s as long as most attacks last. If it helps, stare at the clock. I find it easier to simply glance every now and then, usually catching time advances of 2-3 minutes. As I get closer to the 15 minute mark, I tell myself it’s almost over, which generally ends the attack all together.
Accept The Things You Can Not Control
Over time you’ll begin to develop your own technique for managing and controlling anxiety. I want to share one final thought in order to help anyone handle stress in their lives. I am still struggling with this. I am a control freak, and letting go is possibly the hardest thing for me to do.
I used to attempt to control aspects of my life around 6 months in advance. This encompassed everything from where I was going to be in my career to where I would currently be living, to the things I want to have. Goals are essential in life, but I was letting the ones that I could not control consume my life, adding an unnecessary amount of stress to day to day operations.
Let’s put this into a practical sense now by asking a few questions.
Think 6 months into the past. You begin planning for 6 months into the future from that time. Uncontrollable events that you can not possibly predict WILL come up. They always do. That’s why this is called ‘life’ and not ‘everything is as it should be at all times’. Now, due to these events that have already changed the outcome, shifting your goal to something outside your control. You begin to plan 6 months ahead from that point now. Over the course time, you will find that your plan has changed several times because of situations and circumstances that arise that you simply have no control over.
Now it is the present. Think about 6 months ago for a moment. Ask yourself this. Are you where you thought you would be? Was all that worrying over the minor details worth it? Has worrying about the things out of your control impacted any of your relationships or made you frequently generally upset that you need to now need to adjust? Maybe ask someone close to you in your life these questions about yourself if you can not answer them.
Goals are good. Very good. Having said that, part of life is learning to roll with the punches and take life for what it is. Unpredictable.