Heart racing. Sweaty palms tightening. Breathing shallowly. Feeling backed into a corner and ready to flee or come out fighting. That's how I'd sum up my anxiety attacks.
It's always been difficult to convey to other people what an anxiety attack feels like or what it really entails. I think the symptoms are easy enough to describe and ascribe adjectives to. But the impetus of any panic attack is the part that seems impossible to convey. What, at any given moment, can cripple me as a fully functional adult and transform me into this primitive version of myself? (Learn more about symptoms at FamilyDoctor.org.)
I didn't start having anxiety until after I graduated college and it became apparent that I had to figure out how to handle this. (To read more about my own experience in working through and diagnosing my anxiety, read the full story on my blog.)
Truth be told, I reached a point where I could no longer deal with my own volatile composition. I did reach out to my doctor for help, basically for validation one way or another that I was or wasn't crazy. I felt isolated and that other people couldn't relate to me and it only compounded the problem. When he told me that I had social anxiety and that, physiologically, I really couldn't do anything about it – I felt a huge weight lift off of me. I wasn't crazy. But I still wasn't in a good place. Hence, the beginning of my prescription anti-anxiety medication.
Two years or so after that low-point, I'm happy to say I am no longer on any of my medication – and that was my own choice. I could have remained on it, but I felt compelled to prove to my psyche and my body that I could take this feeling of helplessness and overcome it in other ways.
Running Away – Literally
I have found time and time again that a welcomed distraction and deterrent for stress and anxiety is physical exertion. Never was I a runner in high school or college, but now – I run a fair bit. It becomes a time when I put my body to the test and I can tune out the drama that may be floating around in my brain.
I'd recommend running outside too, or even just going for long, long walks. Sometimes on a Saturday I will plan on a 4 hour walk through my city, taking a book, my iPod, a piece of fruit, whatever I may need. While the physical exertion becomes important in giving the body a physical distraction, the outdoors can have a very calming effect on me.
Being confined to a cubical all day and then returning home to a small apartment can only heighten the sense of being trapped, so I find I have to get outside as much as I can and soak up the fresh air.
Over Think Yourself
If you already have a daily workout regimen and you still get panicky from time to time, perhaps you need balance in another way.
The thing about anxiety is that the driving force is usually one small thing that gets more credit and sway than it should over how you live your life. So what if you condition your brain to work its way out of these moments? Not always effective, but many times at work I have had to just wrap my head around what is setting me off and have had to make solutions work.
Because I have social anxiety, that's difficult to cope with at work when I just want to run away and go home. I usually will take a moment to go outside and walk around the block and give myself a small pep talk that I can plow through this and in an hour, it's all going to be fine. So remind yourself of the same, because it's the truth. Taking slow deep breathes while doing this will also help.
Create It Out
Another option is to completely come at your anxiety from a different angle and to give yourself more opportunity to create something that's purely emotional.
As odd as it sounds, sometimes you just need to manifest all the crazy swirlings in your head down onto paper. Try writing a letter to the person who may be triggering your anxiety, even if you have no intention of sending it, or consider your source of anxiety and sit down and write out every feeling you have and try to find a solution with your brain.
Paint, draw, play music, dance, act. Find a hobby that allows you to be fully expressive without shame or fear of repercussion. While I tend to blog about a lot of stuff, sometimes my words don't do much justice to my feelings and I just start painting. Am I trying to be an artist? No, but again – I welcome distraction to just stop thinking and create something purely out of emotion.
A Little More Zen
Hand in hand with the physical exertion, I started practicing yoga and pilates and it provided a lot of balance. Yoga is amazing in that it can totally challenge your body in ways that a traditional workout cannot and you have to have as much mental discipline as you do physical. It's a totally addictive practice, not only allowing you to take your body to the limit, but also to learn how to silence your mind.
I've even tried meditation and it surprisingly works. Sitting still for a long period of time will eventually allow you to quiet the mind and focus on the breathe, a key to coping with anxiety and anxiety attacks.
One of the great things about meditation is the sense memory of the moments of complete tranquility. When I am feeling a little panicky in my day, I'll take a moment and just remember my breathing and the moments of meditation where I feel in total control and it helps dissipate the ‘walls closing in' feeling.
Honor Your Body
Diet can also play a part, as can sleep, in making sure your body is able to deal effectively with your triggers. Recommendations include drinking lots of water throughout your day, and eating smaller meals throughout the day to ensure you have a stable blood sugar – this could also be a physiological trigger.
Obviously, if you sense that you have anxiety, I wouldn't recommend coping via alcohol or other recreational drug usage. I dabbled there briefly and knew that it was only going to make a bad situation much worse.
Don't try to ignore what your body is telling you. You're having anxiety for some reason and you need to learn how to cope with it, not sweep it under the rug.
A Word on Medication
Approximately 40 million Americans aged 18 and over have an anxiety disorder of some type according to the National Institute for Mental Health.
Clearly, not everyone is the same in the type or severity of anxiety they have, so these methods I've outlined above may or may not be enough to help someone else overcome their own anxiety.
As I said before, I reached a point where I no longer wanted to feel panic about going out to a bar, or about being among a group of strangers, so I knew that instead of sitting at home and shutting myself off from the world, I needed help.
My two medications totally helped me get out of the deep, dark funk I had built myself into and there were times where I wanted to get off my medication and I wasn't ready. Some people take medication their whole life and I wasn't above that, but I wanted to give myself another chance that I could overcome this of my own volition. Again, not everyone can.
If you reach a point where you feel that it's all just too much, consult your physician or consider speaking to a trained therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders.
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America has a number of self-tests that you may want to check out (or recommend) if you think that your life just isn't what it should be, but are afraid no one else will understand what you are talking about. Check them out here.
I hope that these small things will help you cope with your anxiety or at least begin to explore possible remedies that you haven't thought of yet. My advice is that you shouldn't feel crazy or alone – there's lots of us out there. Don't be ashamed.
At my job, I met someone who essentially has the same symptoms and triggers as I do and whenever either one of us feels on edge, we'll call the other. It's nice that the buddy system can apply to everything. And it's nice when someone else doesn't need an explanation of how you feel and just gets it.
For a lot of people, they think anxiety isn't real and I'm not here to change their minds or prove anything. I'm just trying to figure out how to sail more smoothly in my own life.
Read more about Justin's fight with stress and anxiety on his blog.
Justin Thompson is a freelance marketing consultant and writer by night and by day, toils in the belly of the corporate world with only the help of his iPod. To learn more about him, follow him @justinyourmind via Twitter or visit his website at http://justinyourmind.com.