Add these tips to your toolbox, and your next panic attack won’t stand a chance.
The first time I had an anxiety attack, I didn’t know what was happening to me.
I couldn’t catch my breath, and my hands and feet went numb. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced; just writing about it makes my chest tighten, in some sort of reverse sense-memory phenomenon.
Of course, now that I’ve been dealing with anxiety for a number of years, I know what’s going on when my head gets light and my breathing gets shallow. I have a few tools to work with, from avoiding caffeine to taking a walk in the fresh air to popping a Klonopin. But what works for one person doesn’t work for everyone – and even those things that work, don’t work every time. New methods for heading off an anxiety attack are always a good thing.
The following tips, from psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, are ways that you can actually trick your body into chilling out next time you’re headed for a panic attack. Think of them as ways to hack your own brain when it’s going haywire – and keep them in your anxiety toolbox, in case of emergency.
To hack your body, first you have to understand your body. We’re equipped with all kinds of little instincts, pathways, and processes we’re not aware of, that dictate our behavior and keep us operating on a day-to-day basis (not unlike your computer, when you open up that little window that shows you every program running in the background). One of these is the diving reflex, which helps us survive in case we fall through thin ice or fall off a boat into freezing water. Our blood vessels narrow, our pulse slows, and all available oxygen is sent to our vital organs. All non-essential body processes slow or stop, so our body can concentrate on staying alive – and anxiety is one of those non-essential things. So, basically, if you make your body think you might die, you’ll stop feeling anxious.
To trigger the diving reflex, and hopefully stop your panic attack, fill a sink with cold water, add some ice cubes, hold your breath, and plunge your face in for at least 30 seconds. If it feels shocking and terrible, you’re doing it right. For a slightly less hard-core anxiety fix, try keeping a gel pack in your freezer, and when you get anxious, hold your breath and put the ice pack over your face.
For an ice-based anxiety solution that won’t mess up your makeup, try squeezing a handful of ice until you’re in pain. This might sound awful, but that’s the point. You’re trying to trigger something called the pain offset relief response. When a painful sensation stops, you feel better – and this works with panic and anxiety, too. When the pain of the cold lets up, you’ll experience a short burst of euphoria (or at least, that’s the hope). People who cut themselves on purpose are also trying to trigger the pain offset relief reaction – but squeezing ice isn’t dangerous, and won’t leave scars.
Breathing techniques are one of the best ways I’ve found to deal with an anxiety attack, but I never knew why. Turns out, according to Hendriksen, it might be because of something called respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Basically, breathing slowly can help slow down your racing heart.
Here’s how to do it: breathe in slowly, and then breathe out even more slowly, for as long as you possibly can. Remember that your exhale needs to be longer and slower than your inhale. Your heart rate will naturally sync up with your breathing, speeding up when you inhale and slowing down when you exhale. Think about how, when you’re mid-panic attack, you keep gasping for air (inhale, inhale, inhale), and your heart keeps beating faster and faster. You want to slow down and really drag out those exhales. This way, your heart rate will slow down, too.
Do the opposite.
Psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan came up with the theory of “opposite action,” and as weird as it might seem, it actually works – if you can force yourself to do it. The idea is, whatever sounds the absolute worst to you in the moment, the exact opposite of what you actually want to do, is the thing you should do. That means getting dressed up and going to the party, rather than watching Netflix on the sofa all night. Or maybe it’s calling your mom and asking her to lunch, instead of giving her the silent treatment because you had a fight last week. It can even be as simple as going outside for a walk around the block and breathing the fresh air, when you just want to pull the covers over your head and go back to sleep.
Your mood, says Hendriksen, will naturally align with your actions. It’s sort of a fake-it-til-you-make it mechanism. However, she warns, this doesn’t mean you should ignore your instincts. Only employ the opposite action technique in situations where it’s safe and appropriate.
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Comment: Do you have any foolproof methods for heading off an anxiety attack?