In my worst days, a friend told me over the phone, “I am so here for you, for whatever you need. If you need me to come over and hold your hand so you can shower, I’ll come hold your hand.” This is the same spirit with which I write to you today. I may not be able to come to your house and hold your hand, but I am here to help you however I can.
Hey friend, it’s going to be okay. I know it doesn’t feel that way, it feels confusing, overwhelming, and scary. But one step at a time, you’ll make it through this storm. For now though, let's just take the tiniest step.
Hopefully, you’ve already taken that one big and important step we talked about last time. If you haven’t, I think you should take the time to read about that here.
Now though, we are just going to do some tiny steps that will bring you big relief. I know most people will tell you to pray, to talk with God and let him just take away your fears. I definitely think you should pray! But here’s the thing that only us anxious people know….when you are in “freak out” mode, praying is just going to have you circling your fears and begging God to take it away. You should absolutely submit your fears and burdens to God AND ask him to take them away. But...cycling in that place because you aren’t clear-headed and you are panicking is only going to make you feel more panicked. So send up a “Help me God!” and use these tips with God’s help. Once the anxiety attack itself is over, then you are capable of working through the good-hard stuff with God on a deeper level. (Worry not, I’ll be writing more about this later!) For now, let’s focus on the tiniest steps, knowing that God meets us there, ok?
First things first: Breathe. I know, I know...that’s super obvious, right? But when you are being attacked by fear (whether you know what that fear is or not) your body may not actually be the most cooperative in the good kind of breathing. Did you know when you are in duress there is a good kind of breathing and a bad kind? It’s true.
Bad breathing is taking short shallow breaths, you won’t get nearly the oxygen you need and that is only going to confirm to your body that you are in fact, in danger. Danger then tells your brain that it should continue pumping adrenaline through you to get you to either “fight or flight.” But you aren’t really in danger, so your adrenaline has nowhere to go. Good breathing is deep breathing, this helps you get plenty of oxygen, which will help you calm down. The easiest way to tell what kind of breathing you are doing is to observe which part of you body is moving when you breathe. Look down, is your chest moving up and down? That’s bad breathing. Is your gut moving slowly in and out (expanding your stomach)? That’s good, deep breathing. Mentally count to five as you inhale through your nose and count to five again as you exhale through your nose, this will help you to keep it slow and deep. Breathing through your nose is important (and I have this on good authority from a sisterfriend who is a nurse as well as a yoga instructor), because it signals your parasympathetic nervous system which helps you to relax, whereas breathing with your mouth uses your sympathetic nervous system which signals your fight or flight reflexes. Deep breathing is the key to the city of calm. When you are freaking out, start here. Always.
The next step is going to seem really backwards, but trust me. You have to stop fighting the panic. Instead of thinking “Stop freaking out, stop freaking out, stop freaking out. CALM DOWN!! I HATE THIS!” Accept that an anxiety attack is happening. Willing against yourself is only building more stress within your body. Rather than surrender underneath the fear, you are going to accept that this panic is happening and also that it will pass. Visualize your panic attack like a storm blowing in. Storms may be intense, but they won’t last forever. Let the attack blow in, remembering and trusting that the attack will blow over too. And it WILL blow over eventually.
As you are breathing and accepting the anxiety attack as a temporary storm, do whatever you are capable of doing in your regular routine. The key here is that you do what is normal in your life to prove to your body and mind that you are in fact, out of harm’s way. Don’t let yourself think of the big picture of your day/life. Think in very small chunks of time, five minutes. So….what do you need to do right now, in this chunk of five minutes? For me, this meant getting out of bed and doing something to help my family get ready for the day (since my attacks happened most often when I woke up in the morning). Because I couldn’t handle the stress of getting my kids dressed and packing their lunches, and because I wanted a little privacy for the kids’ sake and my own, I did laundry. I got up, shaking and afraid, hugged my husband and told him whatever I was going to do (like I said, usually laundry). Then I would go into the laundry room and through trembling and tears I switched the laundry from the wash to the dryer. Once that was done I let myself acknowledge and celebrate this little victory in helping my family. Now I could take on the next five minutes: fold the clean laundry from the day before. I’d methodically breathe and fold laundry and usually over the course of folding a pile of laundry I would get passed the very worst part of my morning and panic attack.
It’s extremely important that you set your mind only on the present. What am I going to do in the next five minutes? Once you get passed the intensity of the panic, let yourself take on bigger chunks of time. 10 minutes, then 30, then the next hour, then this half of the day. Taking on small chunks allows you to stop the cycle of endless demands and fears circling your mind which overwhelm you.
When you can, move your body! I’ve mentioned adrenaline and how great it is to use up that adrenaline by doing normal activity. If it’s possible, go on a walk (and don’t forget to use that deep, nose, belly breathing!). This really helps in the moment of feeling overwhelmed and panicked. Try to incorporate regular exercise at least a few times a week into your life. There are so many science-y reasons to exercise your body when you deal with anxiety. I’m not an expert so I’ll just tell you that I know it helps me and so many people I know. Find what you enjoy and stick with it, physical health is going to help your emotional and mental health too.
On a similar note: cut out caffeine and sugar. Just when your anxiety is flaring up, not forever! Both of these stimulate your body and mind and we’re looking to calm you down. Again...there is real legit science to support this, but I’m just your friend sitting here and telling you what helps. I’m sure you are quite capable of finding the science stuff via Google.
Lastly, tag in that trusted person or community that you opened up to. Bring them in, send them this blog post or just a little list in a text message of your anxiety attack game plan. If they know what your plan is they can help you with it. On those panic attack laundry mornings, sometimes I just shuffled out of bed looking terrified and my husband would say “Okay, good job getting out of bed! Now what are you going to do?” He just gentled reminded me of my plan and encouraged me to keep going. A friend would text me during the morning and ask how I was doing. I knew I could reply and tell her “I’m out of bed and folding laundry!...and freaking out still” and she would faithfully reply “You are doing awesome! I’m so proud of you!” I felt INCREDIBLY loved and supported to move forward and pursue God’s peace in my life with the support of my people.
So, let’s review.
- Stop fighting it, don’t will against yourself. This will pass like a storm.
- Do what you would normally do, show your body that you are not in danger.
- Don’t think about the big picture. Take small chunks of time.
- Move! Use your body, use up that adrenaline. *Cut caffeine and sugar.*
- Send your people the game plan for coping and calming during a panic attack so they can be a help and encouragement to you!
I hope this is helpful for you. I know that both the friends and professionals that shared this information with me helped me tremendously and I'm so thankful for them. You got this friend, you can handle the next five minutes. And if the next five minutes of real life is too daunting, spend it meditating on these words (one of my favorites during the "bad times").
The Lord Is My Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD