Knowing the early signs of panic attacks
i live with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). which means that anxiety presents itself to me every day throughout the day. as much progress as i have made in therapy i still find myself getting sucked into what i like to call the anxiety vortex. part of my recovery has involved recognising when i start to head down into the rabbit hole and using tools to take a step (or a lot of steps) back. i hear from more and more people that it’s a challenge to identify anxious behaviours for what they are, so today i am going to talk about some of my own panic attacks and what i do to help myself when they come up.
develop body awareness. an important place to start recognising my anxious behaviour was my own body. many of us perceive that anxiety is all in our heads when in reality it is also very much physical. when my thoughts start to race and indecision kicks in i turn my awareness away from my mind towards what is physically happening to me. when my breathing has become faster, when i start sweating, when my palms tingle and when i sweat, i know that my anxiety level is increasing. our physical reactions to anxiety are highly individual – some people experience headaches, stomachaches or backaches, panic attacks while for others the breath becomes quick and shallow. beginning to notice what happens in my body and how it feels has given me a powerful way to spot anxiety symptoms. even if i’m not sure what is making me become anxious, taking note of my physical changes helps me to shorten how long my panic attacks last.
take deep, slow breaths. the first time i learned about deep breathing was in the psych hospital. yes! i thought. i’ll just breathe and the anxiety will stop. it didn’t work. i was still panicking. while i doubted if it was helping me at all i stuck with it for months and months. mainly because every therapist and psychiatrist told me to do it so i figured there was something to their advice and at that point i had nothing to lose. it took a lot of practice for breath work to make a difference. while taking deep breaths in the midst of a panic attack will help to a certain extent, i have found that the real power of deep breathing happens every day. when i am thinking ahead about my day, or driving to work, or at my desk or cooking dinner. i don’t wait until i am in a full-blown anxiety crisis to breathe deep. as soon as my thoughts start racing or i feel any of my physical symptoms, my deep breathing kicks in. sometimes i leave my desk for a few minutes and stand outside and breathe. or i pull over and inhale, exhale. it’s something i can use anywhere to help me hit the pause button and reconnect to my body.
examine the everyday. for me, anxiety isn’t as focused on major catastrophic events. rather it’s hidden in my daily activities. from choosing what to wear to planning an event to buying a gift i become obsessed with finding the perfect solution. from small decisions to big ones, i will compare and check every and all options until i have exhausted myself. before my episode of major depression and anxiety in 2014 i didn’t think that i had an anxiety problem. shopping, overachieving, people pleasing, fear of failure – now i can look back and see that anxiety defined many of my personal and professional habits. becoming educated about anxiety disorders has helped me a lot. now i know what to call it. i know what the symptoms are and can connect them to my own behaviour. as frustrating as it can be at least it makes more sense. and i’m not afraid to get professional help or take medication. it sure beats trying to deal with it on my own.
intervene in the moment. anxiety is like a snowball – once is starts rolling downhill it’s very difficult to stop it. body awareness, breathing and knowing my symptoms are only one side of the coin. the other is actually changing my anxious behaviour, which in the moment is extremely difficult to do because the momentum is so powerful. whatever need is driving the anxious behaviour feels urgent and dire – and for me that is usually an underlying fear of rejection or not being good enough. over time i have found that i can almost always look back and see that choosing the perfect dress or arranging the decorations just so wasn’t so important in the grand scheme of things. often times anxiety isn’t really about what we are anxious about.
there are a few tools that help me intervene with myself in the moment. one is just walking away. if i am getting sucked into indecision and keep checking, researching or going back and forth, i gently encourage myself to drop it or just leave it for now. or i set myself a timer on my phone – ten more minutes to check different options and then i need to stop. i keep a bottle of lavender oil in my purse so that i can pull it out and smell it at moments when i feel the anxiety rising. it distracts me and engages my senses in a different way. i talk to myself, sometimes out loud, and recognise that i am feeling scared and ask myself what else i can choose to do to help me feel safe. exercising, going for a brief walk or even just standing up and stretching helps me to reconnect with my body and takes me out of the intensity of the moment. having some backup activities handy helps – cooking, crafts, watching a movie or cleaning can help me choose a different path.
don’t be afraid to ask for help. i have come to realise that anxiety is common. in fact it’s the most common mental illness in the united states. so very many others experience symptoms of anxiety, even if they aren’t diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. while i don’t wear a sign around my neck that says ANXIETY PROBLEM, i do talk to family, friends and even some colleagues about it. i can’t underscore how much this has helped me. it has shown me that i am not alone. i learn from how other people cope with it and i help them by sharing my own experiences. and i feel less isolated when things get tough. those who are closest to me can help me recognise when my anxiety is becoming stronger, and while that isn’t always easy to hear i do appreciate it. they wouldn’t know how to be there for me if i didn’t share.
getting to know my own anxiety has been the key to help me unlock it. i used to gloss over behaviours that concerned me and didn’t tune into how my body reacted to stress. while it has been difficult to face, it’s almost a relief to understand how GAD impacts me from day to day. the more awareness i develop the less often i find myself sucked down into the vortex. without that knowledge i couldn’t get the help i needed from others and most importantly i couldn’t get the help i needed from myself.