Here are some techniques to help you to calm things down before or during an anxiety attack. You can also use them during a panic attack or at any time that you feel your stress levels spiraling out of control.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety happens when our bodies go into freeze, fight or flight mode caused by a real or an imagined threat.
These human survival instincts were honed centuries ago when we were facing constant dangers from our environment. We may no longer be hiding from or hunting prey but we have new worries caused by our present modern lifestyles.
Our thoughts often seem to take on a life of their own as we juggle our day to day routines and despite knowing that we aren’t in any immediate danger we feel that we’re helpless and can’t control these fight or flight reactions.
Sometimes , when we manage to avoid or remove the things that cause us anxiety we find respite but avoidance isn’t always the answer and many times we simply can’t change things so we need to know how to calm things down, and quickly.
It’s important to know that whilst anxiety and panic attacks have similarities they aren’t the same thing; although both can cause extreme distress and fear.
When anxiety spirals out of control it can sometimes lead to an anxiety attack whereas whether you’re in an anxious state or not, a panic attack can strike.
You can read about the differences between anxiety and a panic attack in this link but I am going to give you some grounding exercises to do when your anxiety threatens to overtake you. (As I explained above, you can also try these techniques during a panic attack).
Do write and let me know if you’ve got any other tried and tested methods of dealing with your anxiety attacks so that we can help others.
To begin with, can you identify what triggers an attack?
The trigger might be something obvious such as starting a new job, walking into a crowded party alone or knowing that there is a big spider on the ceiling! Events such as these often seem obvious but more difficult to pinpoint are the underlying and more subtle causes of anxiety which have their roots in our unconscious.
You may have an emotional reaction to carrying negative beliefs from your past around with you – you might not even be aware of them or where they’ve originated from, or they might include the coping mechanisms that you have built up from being in an emotionally abusive relationship
It’s not just adults either. Anxiety and panic attacks in teenagers are also common and are sometimes due to the hormonal changes that happen during puberty. Teens may find it hard to adjust to changing body shapes or they may lose their self confidence in groups and not to mention the pressure placed on many in the education system. It’s a difficult time for many as they want to fit in with their peers yet they’re struggling to define their own identities.
I was able to identify the occasional panic attacks that I had in my early twenties for what they were, but for years I misread the host of symptoms that I now know were caused by anxiety and which would regularly escalate into anxiety attacks.
Nausea and vomiting, a sense of detachment plus physical trembling and shaking characterised my own attacks. Add into the mix a thumping headache, violent shivering and hyperventilating and my attacks would become all-consuming whilst I was experiencing them. I wish that I had known back then that I was experiencing anxiety.
It’s only now, years later, that I understand all too well the majority of my own personal triggers and I can recognise the pattern of the build up when I get caught in an anxiety spiral.
I’m now able to rationally practice several techniques and mostly I can prevent a full blown attack; but if one does happen I can be calm, knowing that I’m not going to die and that I will work through it.
Control your breathing
One of the first things to do when you feel that you’re becoming overwhelmed is to slow your breathing.
Take measured breaths focusing on both the inhale and the exhale. To begin with, you may need to lie down or go somewhere private, but eventually with practice, you may be able to conquer the impending attack without anybody else being aware of what you are going through.
Personally I often mumble a mantra to myself as I try to push everything else out of my mind and focus on my chosen words. As I calm I become more in tune with my body and I can then concentrate on the physical feelings. I can rationally work out that my tingling fingers are caused by hyperventilating or my nausea is due to extreme stress as my stomach churns around.
I practice Mindfulness which is the art of being in the now and is the perfect tool for helping with anxiety and panic attacks. Because anxiety is generally caused by worrying about something in the future that may or may never happen, you can learn how to pull your mind back to the present in whatever way works for you. You can read a some mindfulness methods in my book Becoming Stronger through Mindfulness – click here for the link – or you can drop me an email for some more information.
By the way, if you find yourself hyperventilating and your fingers tingling or going numb which can happen during a panic attack, breathe steadily in and out of a paper bag which will regulate the gases in your body and quickly gets things under control.
Anxiety & Panic Attack: 5 Senses Technique
This Mindfulness technique gives you a specific task to focus on as you feel an attack building, and the more that you practice it the easier and more beneficial it will become.
Slow your breathing and look around you. I admit that this can take a big effort especially if you find yourself disconnecting with your surroundings and withdrawing into yourself but persevere because it’s certainly worth a go.
This is what to do next. You need to find and focus on the following:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can feel
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
Work through the above list methodically and take your time to really analyse what you’re experiencing. If you are looking at a flower then really study the petals and the colours down to the smallest detail. If you’re sat at your computer, look at your desk. Really study your desk noticing the patterns in the wood grain or the dimples in the plastic worktop.
Find something to touch and consider how it feels between your fingertips or run it over another part of your body for a different sensation.
Take notice of what sounds you can hear around you. If your anxiety is caused by crowds or noise this can be a really useful exercise as you drill down to something specific, maybe the sound of a siren in the distance or a dog barking and you block out the bigger picture.
What can you smell and what do those smells remind you of? If it’s food can you identify the different ingredients or imagine stirring the pot? And finally, what can you taste? Maybe you’re sipping some water or you can notice a bitterness on your tongue or in your mouth. Take the time to think about all aspects of your senses.
Be careful not to allow your anxiety to take over your mind while you are doing this exercise. Don’t permit negative thoughts any head-space. Push them out and this is possible if you really concentrate on the above fifteen things one by one. Take your time and don’t rush this. Take as long as you need to bring yourself back to a balanced state.
Dealing with the physical symptoms of an anxiety attack
Work out what works for you. Moving my body helps me to deal with nausea. If I’m alone I find that methodically pacing around in small circles, muttering my mantra to myself can reduce the physical symptoms as does the routine practice of making a cup of tea and slowly sipping the liquid. I’ve developed an association between swallowing the warm tea and visualising it calming my nausea.
You might like to do some yoga stretches. This in itself can regulate your breathing and put you back in touch with the reality of your body – if you don’t already know any yoga, go online and research a few simple moves that you are capable of. Downward dog is an especially beneficial move and if you can, go a step further and integrate a daily yoga session into your life.
Go to your doctor and ask for a medical check up. Sometimes just being armed with the knowledge that there isn’t anything more sinister going on can be sufficient to calm your anxiety down. Learn about your body and its reactions. That trembling isn’t going to harm you in the short term and once you recognise it and can observe it with interest it will lose its power to upset you.
Treat your body with respect
Establish healthy routines and eating habits. Cut back on caffeine, alcohol and drugs if you do use them and increase your fruit and vegetables. There’s no end of dietary advice out there although it’s best not to follow any fad diets but to eat a balanced variety of foods. You want to nurture a healthy lifestyle and give yourself the best possible chance of improving your health.
Tune into how your body behaves after certain foods. Do you find your anxiety lessens if you cut refined sugar out of your diet or if you start to do some regular exercise? Establish a routine whether it’s a morning walk, yoga or a dance class. Make time for yourself.
Learn to relax
Introduce some calm into your life. Find the time and space to do something that you really enjoy and which can become all-consuming for the period of time that you’re doing it. Whether you’re gardening, cooking, reading or walking the dog just deal with that one thing. Don’t allow your mind to wander or think about your shopping list or what film to watch later. Watch the dog run around, see how the onions caramelise in the pan or listen to the insects buzzing around outside . Get into the moment and appreciate every little part of it.
You can take this method a step further and apply it to just about everything that you do outside of your anxiety. Travelling to work or washing the dishes can take on a new meaning as you become observant about what’s immediately around you. Keep pulling your thoughts back when they start to wander and you are on the first steps to a mindful life.
Remove the triggers from your life
This can often be easier said than done but it might be enough to stop your anxiety in its tracks. I truly can’t say whether I would have made any different decisions or had drastic changes in my life had I understood sooner what was triggering me but I would certainly have worried a lot less (anxiety about having an anxiety attack can be a problem in itself) – and had I had this information to hand I would have at least understood why my body and mind was behaving as it did.
But if you can, go ahead and make some changes. Look around for a less stressful job or stop seeing people who only make you feel bad about yourself. You might need a couple of sessions with a counsellor or a coach to help you to drill down into your past and your subconscious and to clarify what your triggers are. Often the triggers are rooted in our childhood but we have become so used to them being there that we don’t recognise them or the damage that they might be causing.
What's the worst thing that could happen?
Question your belief system. Anxiety stems from worrying about something that might or might not happen. Sometimes we can genuinely and voluntarily avoid the thing that we are worrying about or even better, remove the trigger, but at other times we know that we really must go through with something.
Once you have identified why something is a trigger but you have no option than to confront and deal with it, you can ask yourself ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen?’
Seriously, the computer may freeze during your presentation or nobody might talk to you at the party but these are not really problems. You might feel uncomfortable but that is all. You can apologise for the presentation breakdown and continue from your notes or you can choose to find somebody to chat to or even leave the party. What’s the worst thing that could happen?
Identify and stop negative thoughts
Sometimes it’s the negative thoughts themselves that are the trigger. But you can learn how to filter out the ones that are causing you anxiety either by stopping them in their tracks or reframing them as something else.
Is it really true that everybody is looking at you when you walk across the office or that each time you meet somebody new they judge you because you look different to them? Are you really so hopeless or stupid or boring or ugly or bad?
I can show you how to understand where these thoughts come from and how you can reframe them so that over time you don’t react to them. The more that you understand your anxiety, the easier it is to get it under control and the less it will control you.
- Identify your triggers
- Get your breathing under control
- Do the 5 senses technique
- Manage the physical symptoms of an anxiety attack
- Live as healthily as possible
- Learn how to relax
- Remove the triggers
- Ask yourself, what’s the worst that can happen?
- Change your thinking and stop negative thoughts
and some final thoughts on anxiety....
Just because your worries may seem irrational when you sit down and pick them apart, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid and your anxiety and your reactions aren’t real.
Don’t let your anxiety define you. When your anxiety begins to escalate it can become all consuming but it is not you.
You are not your anxiety, it is just a part of how you tick. You can’t simply snap out of it as some well-meaning people might say, but it’s important to not allow it to take over your life.
Take steps to understand where your anxiety comes from, get medical advice, find out what grounding techniques work for you and practice them. I’m happy to chat to you if you have any questions or if you would like some more information about identifying your triggers or your negative beliefs or coping strategies. Drop me an email or book a free discovery session. Click on the link here