It’s a little after midnight. I’m about to go to sleep. And then I feel it: that tightness in my chest, the weird temperature fluctuations, the restrained-but-notable shaking. Seems like a panic attack is on the menu for the evening.
“Oh, body,” I grumble good-naturedly, “you need to test your fire alarms. They’re a little oversensitive.” I crawl out of bed and turn my salt lamp on, and the room fills with soft, pink-orange light. I re-open my laptop and start playing a Joanna Newsom album in the background. I grab my lavender and clary sage oils from my drawer and let the calming, grounding scents permeate the room, and then I yank all my pillows and covers off my bed and construct a nest up against the wall. Sitting up makes me feel less tight-chested than lying down, and as the old saying goes, ‘everything makes more sense on the floor’.
I spend the next hour or two reading or journaling my thoughts/feelings until the symptoms quietly abate and I feel calm enough to snuggle down in my nest and sleep. Usually I’m a little stiff in the morning from sleeping curled up on the floor, but I’m refreshed and well-rested like any other night. The day starts and I move on feeling healthy and well and proud of taking such good care of myself.
That’s a pretty far cry from three days of paranoid catastrophizing, wouldn’t you say?
It’s taken me over eight years to reach this level of grace when handling a panic attack, but that doesn’t mean it needs to take you that long. I’m here to share what I’ve learned about making an episode as short and sweet as possible. Believe it or not, I’ve actually had some delightful learning experiences in the midst of my panic attacks; I’ve figured out how to lean into them like old (and rather overprotective) friends, and now when I have one I genuinely relish the opportunity to learn a little more about myself and my needs.
The secret’s in the coping strategies.
What Are Coping Strategies?
Coping strategies (alternatively coping skills, coping methods, etc) are the methods by which you deal with stressful situations. Broadly speaking, there are healthy coping strategies and unhealthy, ‘maladaptive’ coping strategies. (Note: I avoid using language like ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ because a) it’s not the individual’s fault that they have been taught a maladaptive coping skill like self-harm or substance abuse, and because b) it’s not okay to shame or judge people based on what gets them through another day. Our focus is on trying to adopt new, healthier coping skills as we grow!)
Coping strategies are also acquired skills, meaning that they are rarely something that we just know inherently. More often than not, we need to actively seek them out.
You saw a few of my personal go-to strategies in the anecdote above: music has always been my anchor, and ever since I taught myself aromatherapy I’ve had a few essential oils on-hand to calm the nervous system. Journaling is also strongly recommended: there’s something about needing to write down what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling that enables you to step back and evaluate those thoughts/feelings with more objectivity and more reason than if you were just thinking them round and round in an internal loop.
But which coping strategies are best for you? As they say, different strokes for different folks–each individual will have a different way of handling their anxiety. It takes time and curiosity to learn what you respond to the best, and I encourage you to treat each panic attack like an opportunity to learn more about yourself and how you respond to different stimuli.
If you have no idea where to start, here’s a list of some one-size-fits-all coping strategies, time-tested by Yours Truly (and most of her friends, if we’re being real).
A First-Timer’s Coping Strategy Handbook
- When in doubt, talk it out. If you have a person who knows/understands your panic attacks, ask them to sit with you while you verbalize what’s going on. My attacks very rarely happen when other people are around, but when they do, I ask my friends to sit with me and let me describe what’s happening my head. It’s like journaling, but faster, and with a journal that can offer support!
- Create a sensory paradise. The body is very sensitive to external stimuli; play around with different smells, sounds, and lighting until you’ve crafted an atmosphere that feels calming and grounding. (Essential oils come in handy here, as do fairy lights or salt lamps or candles. As for sound, music or nature sounds are good choices. If you feel safer when there are people nearby, Coffitivity is a website which generates the ambiance of a coffee shop.) Tactile props, such as modelling clay or kinetic sand, are also useful, as they help you to focus on what you’re doing with your hands instead of what’s happening in your head.
- Pet an animal–preferably one that you own. Don’t go chasing after the neighbourhood wildlife in a fit of anxiety, please. But if you or a friend has a pet, or if there’s an animal shelter nearby, take some time to soak up the ‘uncomplicated love’ that animals have to offer. Studies have shown time and time again that animals improve mental health, and really, who doesn’t think the sound of a kitten purring is soothing?
- See to your basic needs. When was the last time you had water? A healthy snack? Some sleep? Some movement? A lot of the time when we’re roped in by anxiety we forget to care for our basic physical needs, which exacerbates the discomfort. This website was designed as “an interactive self-care guide” to walk you through making self-care decisions in an easy and non-pressuring manner. It covers basic physical needs as well as emotional ones!
- Remember to breathe. Seriously. It’s easy to forget about when you’re freaking out internally. As we learned last week, hyperventilation is one of the symptoms of a panic attack, so being aware of your breathing and consciously working to even out the breath can serve as a very powerful calming tool.
- Go for a walk. Or do some yoga. Or dance in your room. Whatever you’re comfortable with, at whatever level of intensity, but move. It helps to burn off some of that excess adrenaline, and it serves as a distraction from the encroaching feeling of doom. It also helps to reconnect with your body–most of the time we tap out of being in our bodies once we hit panic mode, and some people even experience a complete sense of detachment from their bodies during their panic attacks. Doing some gentle exercise helps to re-center you in your body. Other ideas are grounding exercises like shifting your weight from foot to foot, throwing and catching a trinket between hands, or massaging your own body. (I’ve managed to put myself to sleep mid-panic attack by rubbing some lavender oil into my tootsies.)
- Pre-episode tip: Distract yourself! If the brain can be distracted for 5-10 minutes before a panic attack starts, there’s a very high chance that it won’t go into overdrive. Find a good story and immerse yourself in it, or grab a friend and talk about your favourite fandom, or go watch a few videos on How Stuff Works. This also works for some folks during a panic attack, but personally I find it just makes me feel like I’m hiding from something, which exacerbates the dread.
- Post-episode tip: Re-enter the world. It can seem like the last thing you want to do after shaking it out for 20 minutes (or 7 hours), but it’s actually very effective at settling a mind/body down. When I had my three-day panic attack, I didn’t go to school or see friends–I just stayed in my room and ‘rested’, and while that rest was needed for my physical body, it gave me nothing to do but to dwell on what had happened, and, less helpfully, to worry about whether/when it was going to happen again. Remember that the deciding factor in the re-occurrence of panic attacks is the mental anxiety which triggers another adrenaline release. This tip doesn’t work as well for everyone–my partner, for instance, has a very hard time being in public after a panic attack due to her social anxiety. But if you can find a way to reconnect to the outside, ‘normal’ world–calling a friend, inviting someone over for tea, going to the library and reading quietly with the sound of turning pages all around you–then you’ll feel much more ‘normal’ yourself.
- A pair of lists of coping strategies
All else being equal, the search for coping strategies is all about being in touch with yourself, and experimenting until you find what makes you the most comfortable.
Some questions to explore: Do you prefer to be alone, or to be with people? (Note: examine why. I used to think I wanted to be alone during my panic attacks, but that was really just because I feared I would inconvenience whoever was with me. Now I don’t mind either way.) Do you want to get up and move, or to be still? Do you want to feel cocooned in safety, or do you need open space? How do you feel about people touching you–a hug, a hand to hold, nothing at all? Do you want to talk about something else, or do you need to focus on what’s happening to you?
Remember: You are not going crazy. And in the whole history of humanity, a panic attack has never killed anyone. Take my word for it. I’ve been there. I did the research myself.
If you can persuade yourself to accept these facts–or at least, to put your faith in them for just a couple of minutes–and if you understand what’s happening to you on a biological level, then you can start to view your experience as just that: an experience. Just as unique as any other, and just as deserving of your curiosity. In this way, it almost becomes a game. It’s a bit of a paradox, but trust me when I tell you that the less energy you spend on willing the panic attack to stop already, the less frightening the panic attack is; the more accepting you are of the processes happening in your brain and body, the more comfortable they become. And the more well-versed you are in your own personal mind-to-body language–the language of coping strategies–the more insightful and, honestly, fulfilling a conversation with your own anxiety can be.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of the Guide, where I’ll compile a massive list of resources (bless the listmakers of the internet, for by their power we may Know Where Things Are) and provide some quick tips for creating a more compassionate culture towards mental/emotional health. Until then, stay well, take care of each other, and remember I am always open to talking to anyone who needs it.
What are some of your coping strategies? I’d love to hear them in comments!