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By Brittany Levine
My journey with living with anxiety and depression began when I was about 17 years old. I was young for a freshman in college, but I felt ready and excited to begin the journey. Within the first month, something changed. I wasn’t sleeping right and would wake up in a panic for seemingly no reason. I assumed I was just thrown off by being away from home for the first time. I largely ignored it. Then came the full-on panic attacks during the day. I couldn’t eat, I felt physically weak. Finally, something in me broke, and I drove in the middle of the night to my parent’s home.
At this point, you could say my mom was a “therapist in training.” She had gone back to school to pursue a career as a therapist, having gone through her own struggles with her mental health. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the decision to go home and seek help was the best thing I could have done for myself. Shaking and crying, I explained to my mom what I was feeling. I was scared. Was something wrong with me? Did I have an unknown illness? Was I going to die in my sleep?
With all the caring and seriousness in the world, my mom took my hand and told me she thought I was having anxiety attacks. She suggested we go to a doctor together to see what might help. This might seem small, but I think this short conversation had a huge impact. She explained what might be happening. She normalized it. She told me that it’s okay to get help.
So many people struggle with anxiety on their own, drowning in the social stigma, in the fear, in the unknown. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Nearly 20% of people in the US wrestle with anxiety. That’s one out of every five people you meet. You are not alone. But you might be scared and that’s okay. My goal in writing this is to offer up some tips that help me when I’m struck with an anxiety attack in hopes that I might help even one person ride out the storm until they can see a little more clearly.
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- This might sound silly at first, but the first step to stopping a panic attack is to recognize that you’re having one. Saying to yourself “Okay, I’m having a panic attack right now” can help you to avoid thinking that what you’re feeling is something else. For me, I was constantly convinced I had SOME sort of illness. Panic attacks don’t just affect you mentally and emotionally. They can bring about very real physical symptoms that can be frightening – increased heart rate, rapid breathing, stomach pains, dizziness, numbness or tingling in your fingers and toes. But by recognizing that you’re having a panic attack, you are acknowledging and reassuring yourself that this is temporary and will eventually pass.
- Try distracting yourself! Seriously, try it! I know that it’s hard to try to redirect your focus, but forcing yourself to laser in on something can be so helpful. Nowadays, when I start feeling anxious and start to feel the initial stages of a panic attack, I jump into cleaning mode. I’m organizing closets, I’m sweeping under things that have never seen the light of day. And it totally helps, because I’m distracting my brain and I’m putting that anxious energy to use. For you, it might be painting or going for a brisk walk, or playing a video game.
- I know you’re doing this as you read this, but BREATHE! Count your breaths. When I’m feeling like I can’t distract myself and I just need to sit, I engage in a breathing exercise. I count to 4 slowly as I inhale, hold for 4, and exhale slowly for 8. Concentrating on this pattern and feeling your body respond is a powerful thing.
- This is my favorite tip of all. When absolutely none of the above has worked for me or when an anxiety attack hits me so hard and quick that I don’t have time to go through the steps, I lay down on my back with an ice pack pressed against the back of my neck. Sounds strange, right? Holding an ice pack to the back of your neck for an extended period (~10 minutes, make sure it’s wrapped!) does something amazing. Apparently, when your body experiences a sudden change in temperature, all bodily efforts shift to address that temperature change. So, it doesn’t have to be an ice pack to the neck. You could try splashing some cold water on your face or taking a cold shower. The point is that your brain and body work in concert and if you can trick your body to go into temperature readjustment mode, your brain is working to signal those physical responses, rather than working to fuel an anxiety attack.
I hope that some or all of these tips become useful tools in your anxiety tool box. Sometimes, we just need a little help getting through the worst of it, and that’s okay. Sometimes, we need a little more help figuring out how to navigate life and stress and relationships and mental health, and that’s okay too. We’re here for you.
Brittany Levine was an original founding member of Lost & Found when she was a freshman in college at the University of South Dakota. She received her law degree from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, MN in 2016 and now works as a data analyst for Thomson Reuters. She lives in Saint Paul with her fiancé, and two fur babies, Luna and Remus.