Happy Thursday and almost-long-weekend for many of us. I'm gearing up for a super busy few days before I head down to the beach to kick it for a bit :) TBH I may not write next week, but as May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I did want to make sure I did a post about anxiety before the month was up (not that we can't talk about it the whole rest of the year, too. In fact - we should!).
Before we dive in, I want to make an important clarification: while I believe strongly that most anxiety can be managed through healthy lifestyle changes, I am by no means anti-drug. My coaching clients ask me this often, and while I prefer that folks try our work drug-free (to see what's really having the impact), I always tell them to keep the prescription handy, and take it when they really need it. This was a big part of my own overcoming anxiety when it peaked about 6 years ago. I got a prescription for Xanax, took it a few times, but found that most of the time just having the pills on me was enough of a security blanket to keep the anxiety at bay. Because anxiety becomes a fear of anxiety itself - a fear of having another panic attack. If you know you have something with you to nip it in the bud, it may never get that far. For me, I used the pills in this way while I learned more and began to implement the lifestyle changes that ultimately led me to feeling better, and haven't renewed the prescription in years.
While I don't see medication as a long-term solution for general anxiety disorder, there are some mental health challenges that require pills to help find actual brain chemical balance. I think it's important we make that distinction as it can be easy for folks to feel even worse - like there's something even more "wrong" with them - when meditating all day isn't curing their chronic depression. No pill shaming, period.
All that said, I'll admit I was hit with a bad bout of anxiety not too long ago; it was the first time I'd been consumed like that since 2013, and it scared the shit out of me. I've been there before, yes, but my mindset was worsened by the fact that this is my work and I should know better, "this shouldn't be happening to me anymore" I told myself. I was lucky to get through it unscathed, as we usually do, and found it to be a bit of a blessing. You see, the last few years I've been doing this work and trying to remember what it felt like to really be in the pits of anxiety, with the aim of helping other folks who are there now. Going through it again with some new perspective allowed me to learn from it in a way I wasn't able to years ago, and in a way that remembering also wouldn't have accomplished.
I realized that while I talk a lot about the healthy lifestyle changes that lead to lower anxiety levels and hopefully eliminating panic attacks altogether, I haven't been able to address that one thing: what to do when you're actually down the rabbit hole. And I found myself at a loss. Because it's a real taking-over; it's not a time to analyze why it's happening, it's a time to manage the symptoms, and sitting in quiet stillness can easily make it worse. So here are my thoughts...
1. TELL PEOPLE The stigmas that keep us from sharing it with others can make us feel deserted, and while I had to work through a bit of shame and feelings of hypocrisy, I found that one of the best release valves was telling people. As I spoke about last week - I reached out and asked for help. I told trusted friends and my bf, who not only showed no judgment, but were able to come over or run errands with me so I wasn't alone (love them!!).
2. DISTRACT YOURSELF Feeling supported by friends helped my own acceptance of it and made me feel safe, but also helped me stay distracted, which I'd say is tip #2 for getting out of a panic attack. It might seem counterintuitive since I'm usually saying to stop distracting yourself, but in the case of a panic attack your mind is taking over and you need to dangle something shiny in front of it so it forgets to keep blaring the sirens - it's kinda like a screaming child in that way.
3. MOVE AROUND I found that - even though it was the last thing I wanted to do - getting up and moving on with my day was best; sitting and feeling frozen was a waiting game, so I slowly started tending to my tasks for the day and got the blood flowing. Some yoga or movement may have been helpful in the moment; I made sure to physically burn off some steam later that day even though I was feeling better by then.
4. BACK-UP PLANS Because anxiety is typically caused by feelings of dread, putting back-up plans in place can be super helpful. For example, knowing who in your office you could confide in and ask to cover you if you need to excuse yourself from a meeting, or having a friend on-call to sub your class if you're not feeling better in a few hours; reminding yourself that the world will not crumble if you need to cancel a plan, and again, being honest with the people around you instead of trying to hide it and manage it all alone. More people than you may realize will relate to the feelings you're having.
5. COMPASSION Finally, I found that there was this break in the shame and judgment where I found compassion for myself. Where I stopped trying to hold it all together and let myself crack, and cry, and be vulnerable and be seen - even if just by myself! It's like the little girl in me was crying out, and I had to stop yelling at her to get her shit together, but instead go over and hold her for a minute, and it began to subside.
LATER ON... REFLECT It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what brings a panic attack on, but I can see now how I'd slipped on some of the things that I know make me a little shaky, and perhaps not been totally honest with myself about some nerves I was having. I've cut out coffee and recommitted to my meditation and self-care practices, but most of all, I've let myself off the hook!! I'm continuing to work on compassion and vulnerability and letting myself be seen. #workinprogress
KEEP THE CONVO GOING Sharing this is not easy - but I think it's important we talk about it, and anything I can say that might help someone else is worth the risk. As I'm building this list of "what to do when you're actually down the rabbit hole," I want to hear from you, too! Whether you can simply relate to these feelings, or have found a tactic that helps in the moment, drop a line in the comments and let's help each other out!