Well this is getting a little more serious than usual…
I’m not usually big on getting deep and personal in public, but evidently the efforts to make mental health less stigmatised and more of an open topic have worked because I don’t really feel that awkward talking about.
And I feel awkward talking about most things…
Something like 1 in 6 adults have experienced some sort of anxiety disorder in their lifetime, so it’s basically a fact of life. Not a very nice one, but still.
Anyway, I thought I’d share a bit of my background with anxiety and share a few tips I’ve learned throughout the years that have helped me overcome it.
When I had my first panic attack, I didn’t understand what was happening to me.
I was in Madrid on a school trip, and we had been sent off into the city in groups to do some random educational task. We’d been told to all meet at a certain restaurant at a certain time, and my group (4 girls) were lagging behind.
As we rushed the restaurant, late and pushing through crowds in the main square, I started to feel kind of odd. We got to the restaurant with minutes to spare but once we were sat down and ordering our food, I felt even weirder.
Everything felt fuzzy and distant. My hands started shaking and my heart was beating at an incredible rate. I made a joke to my friend who was sat next to me, saying how strange I felt, and she looked at me with a worried expression and commented how my eyes were really dilated.
In that moment I was suddenly very scared that I was having a heart attack. It sounds extreme, but my chest was tight and my heart was pounding and I thought I may faint, collapse, die, or all of the above.
Filled with overwhelm, I didn’t say anything else to anyone, but made my way carefully to the bathroom and locked myself in a cubicle. Eventually the feeling went away and I joined my friends in the restaurant.
It took 2 more incidents like this for me to realise what was happening.
The second time I was in Starbucks in Truro with a group of friends after school. The third time I was on the bus on my way home from school, and it was this time that I felt so awful that I burst into tears as soon as I got home.
They’re seemingly random and insignificant events, but these were triggering my panic attacks.
So, I had social anxiety and panic attacks throughout secondary school and my first year of college, but I don’t suffer from them any more. I’m not totally sure why, but I think some of the below tips have had something to do with it…
1// Understand what a panic attack is
When I didn’t know what was happening to me in that restaurant, I started to panic more because I thought I was going to die. This is the whole point of a panic attack.
It is your body’s exaggerated response to fear or stress, a ‘fight or flight’ mode releasing hormones like adrenaline that cause your heart to beat faster, your hands to shake and a feeling of being faint or nauseas. Your body is suddenly like “get me out of here now or I will die“.
(Nice one, body.)
It feels horrible, but that’s all it is. A feeling – your body’s natural response.
Once you understand that and you realise that is all that is happening to you, and no you’re not actually dying or having a heart attack, then it’s much easier to cope with because you’re not adding more panic to the situation.
2// Recognise the signs
When you know what panic attacks are, you’ll be able to better recognise the signs of one creeping up on you (I don’t know if this is the same for everyone, but mine definitely ‘creep up’ rather than just happen!).
They can appear slightly different for everyone – some people feel nausea with a panic attack, but I never have. For me, the key things I’d notice to start with were:
- Shaky hands
- Feeling faint
And then from there my heart rate would start climbing. Once I recognised those things, I knew it was probably best to go somewhere quiet and ‘safe’ (like home or the arms of a loved one!) to stop it from worsening.
3// Make a note of your situational triggers
These are different for everybody. Because I was suffering with social anxiety, I was prone to getting panic attacks in social situations, like crowds of people, and particularly public transport.
No one likes public transport.
The most annoying part of the whole thing is that I never actually felt ‘threatened’ or really stressed at the time of any of my panic attacks. Most of the time I was either with friends or just sitting quietly on my own on the bus, but at the end of the day the true cause of panic attacks are mostly unknown, so they (unfortunately) can just happen at random.
4// Neutralise your triggers
Once I knew that public transport was really setting off my panic attacks, I made a conscious effort to make my travels as pleasant as possible. I made playlists of my favourite happy songs, packed my favourite snacks (chocolate brownies anyone?) and took a notebook to write or doodle in.
Trains and buses weren’t something I could avoid, especially in my first year of college when I took the 4 hour train home regularly to see my family and didn’t have a car. But I don’t think it’s healthy to just avoid your trigger situations altogether; if I had done that I would have become a recluse pretty quickly!*
*Yes I am a bit of a recluse now, but that’s by choice okay?
5// Consider other triggers (eg. food & drink)
Another strong trigger I found for a few years was coffee. Remember that Madrid trip? Strong Spanish coffee. The Starbucks social? Yep, you guessed it!
Being sensitive to caffeine made the panic attacks much worse, so I cut out coffee for years and drank green tea instead (vom). I’ve gradually re-introduced coffee and it doesn’t seem to cause a problem anymore.
6// Try out breathing techniques
I only ever had one panic attack bad enough where I needed to focus on my breathing. The rest of them I’ve just ridden out until they went away on their own.
It was a case of counting slowly to 5 with each inhale and exhale, much like yoga or meditation, to help slow down the heart rate. It’s not really a prevention technique, more of a last ditch attempt before you collapse in a heap on the floor!
7// Most importantly: Push yourself more (not less)!
For Gods sakes don’t let panic attacks control your life, it will only make it worse. You’ll feel scared to do anything because you fear it may set you off.
The more you push yourself, the easier it will become.
Moving away to Bristol (aka an actual city with loads of people!) when I was 16 was the best thing I’ve ever done. I had no choice but to just deal with situations like taking a long train/bus journey, talking to people on the phone about bills, doing job interviews, and generally interacting with people like an independent adult.
The result? No more panic attacks.
There are things that still stress me out a little, like talking on the phone or meeting new people, or the dreaded business networking, but pushing myself to do these things more often only builds my confidence.
I hope to God all of that doesn’t sound too preachy, but if I had known all of the above when I was sat in that restaurant in Madrid I would have felt so much better. So I hope someone reads this and remembers it at a point when they’re struggling. For more info, tips & support, head to Mind.org.