When anxiety strikes, unexpectedly.
By Vanessa Haldane (@vanessahaldane)
It begins with a sense of impending doom. My heart rate increases, my mouth becomes dry like it’s made of chalk. I begin to sweat and my body breaks out in goosebumps. I start to feel nauseous and my head starts to pound from the pain of my tense body and clenched jaw. Noises become louder and a bit of a blur, there’s a dull ringing in my ears and my heart is beating so loudly I am sure other people can see it physically pulsating out of my chest wall.
There is a fear of humiliation- that everyone knows I am panicking and that I will vomit/pass out or be trapped whilst very publicly having an attack. I will do anything to make it go away, I am scared, I feel crazy and I even feel I could possibly die. I can’t handle the feeling, it’s like butterflies in my tummy but replace butterflies with large birds – I can’t calm down and I just want it to stop.
This describes anxiety for me and, if you’re reading this, possibly for you too.
One thing I have learned from having anxiety most of my life is this – there isn’t always a trigger and it can hit when you least expect it. There are times I KNOW I’m going to be anxious – attending an event alone, job interview, modelling job casting/ booking, meeting new people and even, like today, waiting for my daughter to come back from her driving test.
Usually the anxiety for these events is building in the weeks, days, hours leading up to it and I am somewhat prepared and have a plan of action in place. But what about those times that anxiety strikes and you aren’t expecting it? For example – I woke at 4am the other morning panicking about……I wasn’t entirely sure!
I was extremely nervous and feared I had embarrassed myself the day before, or that I said something I shouldn’t have, to someone?
That sense of impending doom and fear of humiliation had somehow struck when I was SLEEPING?!
I have had times when I have experienced it in a shopping mall for no apparent reason and I didn’t know what to do.
I liken anxiety to the mean girl at school who knows everything you’re afraid of and all your insecurities and uses them against you. When you’re panicking it’s like this mean girl is inside your head validating your irrational thoughts and fears. She is the only voice you can hear in a very noisy room, when in the throes of a panic/anxiety attack.
The not knowing what to do, in this situation, is terrifying so I’ve put together a little action plan, we can all implement, when anxiety strikes unexpectedly.
Step 1. Calm your breathing. When experiencing anxiety our breathing becomes short, sharp and shallow. This contributes to our fear and feeling of choking/ dying/ being out of control. Breathe deep into your diaphragm ensuring your stomach expands like a balloon, not your chest. Breathe in for three seconds, out for four seconds – do this 5 times.
Step 2. Tense all your muscles- concentrating on one muscle group at a time and then release. Start from your toes and work your way up slowly to your face/head.
Step 3. You’re internal dialogue is imperative here – remember that mean girl we talked about earlier? It’s time to tell her to be quiet! This is when you need to remind yourself that what you are experiencing is anxiety, that it will pass and that you are NOT going to die. Do NOT reprimand yourself with negative self-talk, just be with it and your feelings and know it will pass.
Step 4. Distraction – All of the above is a form of distraction, but if you are in such a state that you cannot initiate these, then distraction is key. Touch something cold and concentrate on that feeling, count to 100, find five objects around you and list them in your head.
Step 5. Smell – Carry an oil, or scent that you find calming, with you at all times (just a small vial to fit in your purse, or even something around your neck) Lavender is a popular choice and you’ll find, if you have this smell around you when your practice mindfulness or meditation, your body will associate it with calm – even when you’re panicking.
Step 6. Call someone you trust – tell them what’s happening and describe your symptoms. This helps you to recognise that they are just feelings and by recognising them you can let them go.
Step 7. IF you can- walk it off. Sometimes there is a build-up of adrenaline and walking not only helps to remove this excess it also encourages deeper breathing.
And remember……… no panic attack ,in history, has lasted forever – it will pass and sometimes just letting yourself feel what you’re experiencing and letting it pass by, is enough.