“You have to remember it’s not going to kill you. You will come through it, it will pass…” he said, looking me sternly in the eye.
“But I can’t breathe, and it feels like I’m going to suffocate,” I replied.
“Just tell yourself over and over again that it’s not going to kill you,” was the response.
Those were the words of my doctor when I first discussed my panic attacksfrightening the life out of me.
Panic attacks, especially horrible ones that make you physically sick, can be caused by extreme anxiety, sending a surge of adrenaline racing through your system, which makes it difficult to breathe. But besides full-blown attacks, there are all kinds of ways anxiety can manifest itself, from clammy palms to sleepless nights.
I’ve let stress and worry build and brew to the point of literally worrying myself physically sick. I’ve had to try to blink away flashing dots as the world started to spin, struggling to catch my breath sitting on a train on my way to work, before public speaking, even sitting on my bed at home when my mind has run away with me.
My anxiety comes from overthinking. A worry starts playing itself on loop round and round in my mind, then I start worrying about how much I’m thinking about it, which makes me worry more and then I overthink how much I’m worrying. It’s a trap; a vicious cycle that I’ve had to learn to snap myself out of.
If I start to feel panic rising, I force myself to sit down, close my eyes and take a long slow breath in. I clench my fists, hold it for a few seconds, and then gently exhale. It sounds very simple, but that works as well as the wise words from my GP.
My other magic trick is to distance myself from my thoughts. I picture them as a data board from a computer, or scribbles on a cloud. Shoving them away to the side, so I can concentrate on my breathing again.
In psychology speak this is called cognitive diffusion (stopping yourself from being fussed with your thoughts). You’ll also hear talk about cognitive distancing (seeing your thoughts as predictions, not facts; which is important, as usually we’re fretting about things that might not even happen). There’s also lots of talk about the importance of mindfulness (being aware of your thoughts rather than reacting to them).
And while these techniques all have plenty of merit, it’s also easy for the already anxious person to drown in complicated medical speak, further amplifying stress.
For me, a really helpful saying makes sense of what’s going on inside my head; they say that an anxious mind is either making things or breaking things. In other words; keep busy. Eating well, getting daily exercise and plenty of sleep are also crucially important in making sure my anxiety doesn’t run away with me.
But the most critical step of all in my path to healing my anxious mind, has been self-acceptance; acknowledging that sometimes worries will pop up in my head, and not to stress about having to constantly solve or battle with them; instead just letting them be what they’ll be. Because at the end of the day, like my wise GP reminded me, they won’t kill me. And what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.
Comment: Have you had any experience overcoming anxiety? How did you do it?