This post is Part 2 of a four-part series on anxiety. You can find some general thoughts about anxiety in the Prologue. Please note I am not a medical professional. In these posts I am sharing my experiences and insights in the hopes they will help others. Please seek medical help if you need it.
I rarely have anxiety attacks, at least severe ones. For me anxiety is more a constant companion, a white noise that grinds me down and colors all my decisions and actions. Every so often, though, it all becomes too much and my heart races, my stomach churns and my throat tightens. I pace and can’t concentrate and sometimes I even am tempted to emit a high pitched moan-whine-groan hybrid noise. Not pleasant.
Anyone who has suffered anxiety like that knows there is no way to talk yourself into calmness. There may be no wolves at the door and my boss might not be calling to fire me. It might be true that no one (as opposed to everyone) at the party hates me. But fear has taken me to a place beyond logic. Logic and reality checks will help later, but right now I am in a place where the symptoms I experience cause more anxiety, which manifests more symptoms. This spiral can spin and tighten around me until feel like my head will explode.
I find once the physical symptoms of anxiety are causing me distress, I need to break the cycle RIGHT NOW. Then, once the symptoms have subsided, I can move on and face the anxiety and what is causing it – at least in my own mind.
Here are a few of the things I do to help me deal with anxiety in the moment. But I have to make sure that as I do, I am giving myself permission to not be anxious:
Getting out of my head. Anxiety comes from our head and often the antidote lies in becoming aware of and getting back in touch with my body.
- Deep breathing. It’s not always possible right off the bat, but a few deep breaths (in through the nose, out loudly through the mouth) can slow both my breath and my heart.
- Change of temperature. For me, cold is very calming. A cool shower, an icy glass of water, even just pressing my face against something cool smooth. In the winter, I step outside or roll the car window down.
- Stretching. I am sure there is a science to this, but for me, anxiety is constricting. A simple standing stretch like Mountain Pose, Triangle Pose or just standing and stretching my arms out as far as I can slows my mind and reminds me of my own strength.
- Repetitive, tactile experiences. There’s a reason prayer beads or worry beads exist in so many cultures. Having something to touch, rub or manipulate can be calming. I have a worry stone that is smooth, cool and big enough to weigh down my hand a little. Sometimes just holding it and feeling that weight helps. Sometimes I hold it and feel for a while.
- Getting outside. The physical experience of being outside is totally different for me. The smells, the sounds, the feel of moving air on my face, the give of real dirt under my feet. It all gets me back fully into my body.
- Tapping /patting your body. This sounds odd, but stay with me. When my thoughts are whirling away and spinning out of control, tapping my body helps me realize I have a body in the here and now. It brings me back to the real present and out of an imagined future. Give it a try: not too hard, about like you’d pat someone’s arm to wake them from a sound sleep. I usually pat my cheeks, my arms and sometimes my chest and legs.
- Thymus tap. I learned about tapping the thymus just this fall. The thymus is a gland located beneath the breast bone. Tapping on it with my fingers or even (gently) with my fist raises my energy (in a good way) and calms me down. The thymus plays a role T-cell maturation and regulation of the immune system. I was introduced to thymus tapping by an MD, but most of the literature I can find on it feels a bit out there. Still, it makes me feel better when I am panicky. That’s good enough for me.
Distract my mind. Once the physical symptoms start to lessen, I can start to distract my mind. The permission is really an issue for me here. Sometimes it take a lot for me to really get I do not need to be wrapped around my own axil all the time. Here are some of my favorite distractions:
- Humor. Sometimes it’s dark jokes at my own expense, sometimes it’s binge-watching It’s Aways Sunny In Philadelphia. Sometimes it’s the next installment of my boyfriend’s never-ending beagle joke.
- Music. Loud, raucous music that drowns out thought for a while. All the better if I can dance to it.
- Change of location. Sometimes just sitting in a different chair or moving into another room changes my perception and jostles me out of my anxious state. Other times, it takes the entire process of deciding to go somewhere else – a new coffee shop or a different park – and getting there to do the job.
Tell someone. The right someone. Anxiety can be isolating. Just telling someone I am feeling anxious lessens anxiety’s grip on me. But I have to be careful. It’s easy for people to say something they think will be helpful but in reality just sends me spinning even faster. Tell someone who will respect your feelings and will help lead you back to calmness. I find a simple but earnest “It will be OK” followed by some distraction is the best way people can help me.
Try these things and let me know if any of them help you. If there is something that works for you, please share it!