Everyone has their own special mental weirdness. And your humble, almost perfect Bitches are no exception. (I know. Try not to die of shock. My sincerest apologies for ruining the illusion of our all-encompassing perfection.) And since May is Mental Health Month, we’re going to lay our personally atypical brain chemicals and lessons learned from life experience all over you!
Recently Kitty and I were talking about how our personal mental weirdnesses have affected our lives. Financially, emotionally, physically. And we realized we had a lot to say on the topic, a lot that our darling readers might relate to or take comfort from. Being an adult is stressful as fuck! And brains are complicated organs full of chemicals doing unpredictable things. So why not share with the rest of Bitch Nation?
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with anxiety. This didn’t come as a surprise to me, as I’ve always been prone to stress, hyper-focusing on mildly important stuff to the point of panic and despair, and constant worrying about small stuff. But it did come as a surprise to my familiars, since over my lifetime I’ve become pretty damn good at hiding my symptoms.
I just wasn’t good at actually dealing with them.
An anxiety disorder is a mental condition in which a patient tends to… well, to freak out more than is normal. A clinical anxiety disorder is not only bothersome, but it interferes with your life. It’s not only unpleasant, but constant and overwhelming. And while everyone feels stressed or panicked from time to time, the thing that sets those with clinical anxiety disorders apart is that their stress, their anxiety and panic attacks, are completely uncontrollable, disproportionate, and inappropriate to the situation.
There is no “just relax” to someone with anxiety. We literally cannot relax when in the throes of a panic attack or anxious episode. That’s kind of the problem.
No, YOU should see a doctor!
So anxiety is my mental weirdness. I take medication to help with it now, and I’ve developed many artful, ninja-like ways of dealing when my anxiety gets really bad. Or when I have a panic attack.
Which brings us to you! Dealing with a panic attack is terrifying and difficult. It can be even worse if you don’t understand what’s happening or how to make it better. So I want to help.
When I first started my Anxiety Odyssey, all the resources I found online stopped at “You should go see a doctor!” Which was… helpful in the long-term because I am a financially stable person with health insurance and access to great hospitals and medical care, but not particularly useful in the moment. In fact, it’s a bit of a slap in the face to someone currently experiencing a panic attack. “Calm down enough to call a medical professional and schedule an appointment,” is completely unrealistic advice when your body is going:
And it’s even worse for those who don’t have access to or the funds for medical care. Even with insurance, a trip to the ER can cost hundreds of dollars in copays. Some medical professionals are guilty of minimizing anxiety and its insanely dangerous symptoms. Seven in ten bosses don’t believe that anxiety is a valid reason to ask for time off. And minors are particularly vulnerable to authoritarian parents who don’t believe their illness is legitimate and won’t facilitate care.
So while the advice of an Internet money blogger is by no means a perfect substitution for the care of a doctor who spent roughly nine million years in school learning to take care of brains and bodies, I still want to share my advice and experience.
If you can’t get medical attention right away, or even if you’re receiving medical attention but it’s not cutting it, here is some advice on how to deal with the worst aspect of anxiety: a panic attack.
Recognizing the signs of a panic attack
Congratulations! You’ve just had a panic attack. The good news is your amygdala is working. The bad news is you’re probably under a lot of stress right now. But you probably knew that.
Basically what has happened is your primordial fight-or-flight instinct kicked in hardcore. You turned into a Late Triassic prey animal with the scent of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in her nostrils. But you’re a person and there was no way to actually fly away from your predator nor to fight it, so shit just got really unpleasant for a while.
From what my doctor tells me, panic attacks can manifest in a few different ways depending on the person and the situation. The main symptoms to watch out for are related to vision, heartbeat, and breathing, but all kinds of other fun things can signal that you’re in a panic attack too. A by no means comprehensive list:
- Rapid breathing or hyperventilation
- Tunnel vision, dilated pupils, or pinprick pupils (basically, if your eyes do weird stuff)
- Tingling in the extremities (sometimes due to lack of CO2 from hyperventilation)
- Extremely pronounced heartbeat or rapid pulse (it can feel like you’re having a heart attack or sprinting for miles)
- Dizziness (sometimes resulting from hyperventilation or lack of CO2)
- Sweating or chills
- A weird sense of being disconnected from your body
- Feeling like you’re literally dying
- Abject terror (my favorite)
If you have a condition like anxiety, you’re more predisposed to panic attacks than most, but even a person without anxiety can have a panic attack due to extreme stress or emotions. It’s totally normal to react to a stressful situation (like receiving a huge unexpected bill or losing your job) with a panic attack. But if it happens again or if you have questions, you should find a way to go see a doctor.
Coping with a panic attack
Here are some coping techniques that sometimes work for me. Key word being “sometimes” because they don’t always work, in which case you just have to wait for it to end. Have fun!
Lie down but don’t close your eyes. Curl into a ball or the fetal position if it’s comfortable for you. The idea is to make your body feel protected, but aware to danger. Lying down will also prevent you from falling down if you get dizzy or start seeing in tunnel vision, and is therefore much safer than standing and waiting it out.
Repeat a mantra. Remember that scene in Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune? Where Paul Atreides, the Muad’Dib himself, is chanting “Fear is the mind-killer”? That’s the idea here. I tend to use “Invictus” by Henley, but anything rhythmic and easy to memorize will do. (Full disclosure, the doctor who taught me this suggested I try the Prayer of Saint Francis, but I’m a filthy heathen so that wouldn’t do.)
Slowly drink a glass of water. Don’t gulp. Drink it sip by sip, breathing in and out slowly between sips. Water is always good for you, and this repetitive action will have a lulling effect on your brain and body.
Distract yourself. Have a conversation about something completely unrelated. Read a book, play a video game—whatever will take your mind off things in the immediate moment. I always find it helpful when there’s someone there to force me to concentrate on their conversation.
Swaddle yourself tightly in a blanket burrito. There’s a reason babies find it comforting.
Try a muscle isolation routine. You can find many excellent tutorials online (the Companion app is a favorite of mine), but the one I do usually involves tightening and concentrating really hard on each of your muscle groups one by one, starting with your feet and moving up to your neck. If you’re just generally stressed, this one’s good too. I do it when I feel a stress migraine coming on.
Sympathetic breathing. I used to just think of this one as getting a gentle bear hug from my giant bear of a husband. This is always the fastest solution for me. But he’s not always around and hence the other methods in this list. Basically, I lay on top of my husband and he just hugs me and we breathe together. You can do this while sitting with your back against someone’s chest, or standing in a hug. The idea is that their steady, non-panicked breathing rhythm will help steady your own breathing and give you something to focus on. Plus hugs are nice.
Managing daily anxiety
Things like yoga and meditation don’t work for panic attacks (at least not for me), though I hear they’re good for managing daily anxiety in the long-term. They’re good stress relievers. But when you’re literally panicking and feeling like you’re going to die, the last thing you want to do is lay flat on your back with your eyes closed, exposed to unknown dangers and asked to just “be present” in this terrifying fucking moment.
Same goes for cardiovascular sports. I started running as a way to manage my daily anxiety and it works like a charm. All that pent-up adrenaline gets released when I’m pretending I’m running away from a horde of the cannibalistic undead. I go to sleep too exhausted to feel anxious, and my ass looks fly in a mini dress. But as a solution to a panic attack… running is not exactly helpful.
If you have repeated panic attacks and constant, steady anxiety completely disproportionate to the level of stress and excitement in your life… you should see a doctor. You might have a full-blown anxiety disorder, and they can prescribe either counseling or drugs to help you cope. Personally, I love my anxiety medication, but I understand that meds aren’t right for everyone in every situation. So seek personalized advice from Actually A Doctor if you can.
Any fellow anxious types in the house? Tell me about your best coping methods with a comment!