What I've Learned About Calming Anxiety
What Do I Know?
I am not a therapist. This blog should not be used to self-diagnose an anxiety related disorder. I cannot and do not claim to dispense any kind of therapeutic formula. Still, if you suffer from panic attacks and want to know how to make it better, you should read what I have to say.
Why? Because I am is a person prone to anxiety who has found her own ways of calming the panic. Some were recommended to me by a professional, while others are methods I've discovered through time and experience.
In my observations I've come to believe some people are born with an innate ability to stay calm, while others are not. Those who are not, like me, are more emotionally reactive. We over think things. We're extremists who jump to the worst possible conclusion and believe it to be true regardless the evidence.
We're fine as long as everything around us is calm, but let one hiccup hit us and the world's ending. This mentality coupled with the stress of a demanding work schedule, financial burden, and/or raising children is a recipe for disaster. I've come to realize I cannot change how stressful life will be, but I can change how I react.
I've spent years combatting panic attacks on my own. After becoming a single mother and sole breadwinner a year and a half ago and experiencing the worst attacks of my life, I sought professional help. It's required some lifestyle changes, but overall the success I've had in relieving my anxiety is credited to the methods I list below. They've worked for me so well I want to share them with others who may not know, like I didn't at one time, that there is something you can do to help yourself without a psychiatrist's prescription pad.
Some Facts About Anxiety Disorders
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder
6.8 Million People Suffer
6 Million People Suffer
15 Million People Suffer
Women are 2x as likely to have it
Women are 2x as likely to have
Equally Common Between Men and Women
Usually combined with other disorders
Usually combined with depression
Grounding & Mindfulness
Grounding techniques are commonly suggested for people suffering from PTSD to help keep them in the present moment when they begin to experience a flashback. To the same effect, this practice can assist when feeling the onset of or in the midst of a full blown panic attack. The idea is to mentally ground yourself to your surroundings rather than keep inside your head where the tormenting thoughts are occurring.
There are a variety of grounding techniques. What works for me isn't going to help everybody, but don't become discouraged. Keep searching for what does work for you. I will list the two methods I use, but if you find them lacking, I highly recommend researching more and trying out other options.
The first technique is related to texture. This can work in the car, behind your desk, in bed, in class, or really anywhere your hands can be free. When I start to feel my stomach clench in its telltale way that indicates the coming of an attack, I like to rub one hand on the thigh of my jeans (I rarely wear anything else, but if I were wearing shorts or a skirt I'd use that), and the other hand along my desk, or steering wheel, or whatever else is lying around made of a different texture.
Focus on the feel of the surfaces you choose. Notice the differences between the two. Notice any sensations you feel. Stay with those sensations and let your thoughts clear from your head. For me, this breaks the thought cycle that usually causes the anxious feelings and once I'm thinking calmly again I can focus on something else.
If this doesn't work, I turn to observing what's around me. For example, if I'm in a car, I'll notice the colors of the buildings as we drive by. The colors of the bushes. I'll count street lamps, parking meters, road signs, etc. Keep to observational statements. "That tree is green." "That building is tan." "That car is a Volvo." Avoid statements that pass judgement. "That green tree is ugly." "That tan building is rundown." "That Volvo must be a rich person's car."
Both techniques take you out of your head and ground you directly into the real world around you. They are very effective, though there have been times I've had to turn back to them time and time again in the same day. They are a coping mechanism, not a cure. This is important to keep in mind to avoid frustration in times when the anxiety persists.
Grounding yourself is also an example of Mindfulness. By definition mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. There are countless mindfulness exercises, classes, books, mediations, etc., and practicing mindfulness consistently will provide you with long term help to assuage anxiety before it even begins.
Check my supplemental materials section for some help learning more about Mindfulness. My personal favorite is the Calm app. I can honestly say it's saved my sanity.
Doodles & Distractions
Writing is extremely therapeutic for helping a person process feelings. Venting into a journal when you've had a bad day can give you that I've gotten it off my chest feeling and allow you to move on from whatever irked you. Keeping a gratitude journal where you express positive thoughts can help improve your overall feelings of happiness.
If you feel your anxiety is a symptom of deeper emotional troubles such as depression, or you've recently experienced a calamitous life change, then I do recommend writing your feelings out to help in processing them. However, when you're in the middle of an anxiety attack I do not suggest you turn to writing.
I've found that writing while anxious only exacerbates the problem. It keeps you inside your head too much, something we've already determined isn't where you want to be.
One day though, I picked up a notebook because I had to do something. I was so upset this day using the grounding techniques wasn't enough. I needed something more active, more tangible to distract my mind.
I've never been good at doodling, so I started to draw a checkerboard pattern. I sat there drawing square after square until the page was full. When I was done with the pattern, I began to color them in. Within twenty minutes I'd become so focused on my task at hand I forgot completely about the stress giving me so much grief.
I bought an adult coloring book the next day. These days I use it for more than just a calming exercise. Coloring makes for an excellent brainstorming activity in addition to de-stressing a problem. Your brain kind of goes into a free cycle of thinking and you'd be amazed what can occur to you during an unconscious stream of thought. All of a sudden you might just have the solution to that overwhelming work problem pop into your head and boom, clarity.
The overall message here is to distract yourself from the anxiety overall. Coloring works for me, it may not for you. Perhaps it's knitting, making jewelry, cooking, doing jumping jacks, it doesn't matter. Find your activity(ies) that best distract your mind, and do them. Again and again. Until you've calmed yourself and can begin to think rationally again.
Coloring Books for Adults
Laughter & Sunshine
Oh geez, does that title sound cheesy or what? But seriously, laughter is the best medicine for any general feeling of distress. It's difficult though to find a sense of humor when you're panicking. So what do you do?
YouTube. Facebook. Podcasts. Radio. Comics. Netflix. Choose your poison and plug in! Turn to whatever you know will make you laugh. If all you have is a moment at work, go to YouTube and search for your favorite comedian. Don't have one? Search for "funny videos" and click around until something tickles your funny bone.
If you have a larger chunk of time. Perhaps you're at home and it's bed time but you can't sleep because your heart is racing, palms sweating, mind swirling, and you feel the walls are going to close in on you. Turn on the funniest show you can find. If you have Netflix, or Hulu, go find that sit-com that always gets you rolling on the ground. Binge watch until you laugh. A real laugh. Out loud and genuine.
For me, I love Wait Wait Don't Tell Me on NPR, so I subscribe to the podcast. When I need to, I hop on my bike (which leads to the second part of this section) and listen while I ride. Works every time. And trust me, I know I look like a crazy person riding around on my bike laughing my head off, but I do not care!
So, that brings us to sunshine. I've already mentioned my bike, but I work from home so I know not everyone can just take a break and ride away. You can take a walk around the block though. Step out on the patio if you're office has one. Eat your lunch at the park. Sit on the trunk of your car in the parking lot for fifteen minutes and text a friend. Basically, just go outside! Get back to the real world, take in some sunshine, get some Vitamin D, and breath some fresh air. It helps. I promise.
How often do you take a break from work and go outside?
I know what it's like to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. I count myself blessed to have discovered tools and put into practice techniques that have improved the peace in my life. As I've worked through this over the past few years, the desire to help others who I see struggling with this pain has increased and intensified.
If nothing else, I hope it helps just to know you're not alone.
- Grounding Techniques - Mental Illness Mouse
Grounding Techniques Grounding is a technique that helps keep someone in the present. They help reorient a person to the here-and-now and in reality. Grounding skills can be helpful in a variety of...
Enjoy a moment of calm.
- What Mindfulness App Is Right for You?
Every app uses varying voices, work flow styles, and types of guided meditation, so try a variety of apps to see what sticks. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you feel drawn to practice everyday.
- Gretchen Rubin | My experiments in the pursuit of happiness and good habits
Gretchen Rubin is the author of "The Happiness Project." If you're looking for long term help to improve your overall sense of happiness, read the book, read the blog, or listen to the podcast.