￼(This blog post is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical condition! If you are struggling with panic attacks, please talk to your doctor. I’m not qualified to give medical advice, these are just a few things I’ve tried that seemed to help.)
I have had Panic Disorder for a long time. I was diagnosed at 17 but it’s been a regular feature of my life since I can remember. Seeing a doctor about my anxiety opened me up to the world of self-help books and websites and techniques that I never knew existed.
I know that when you go online looking for information on how to cope with panic attacks, a lot of the advice out there can be helpful at first, but after a while it all sounds the same. Focus on your breathing? Imagine yourself in your safe place? Take a bath? Sure. Those can all work. But sometimes they don’t. A lot of times they don’t. And it can get a little discouraging when that’s all the advice you can find.
Over the years I have come across a few things that seem to help me when I am in the midst of a panic attack that don’t tend to make the popular lists online of coping mechanisms.
It’s totally possible that these are specific to me.
But, I figure it can’t hurt to offer a few unorthodox methods that might be worth a try if the calming visualizations and Enya albums aren’t working.
1. Squeeze a rock
It doesn’t have to be a pretty tumbled rose quartz in the shape of a heart or anything either. As long as it is pretty smooth and of a good size. For some reason, I find it comforting to squeeze really tight on something so unyeilding and solid, it kind of gives the impression of an anchor to hold on to. None of this ”gently let your fingers glide over the smooth surface of the stone” either. I squeeze until my knuckles are white, hold for a few seconds, then relax before repeating. I also find that when I do this during an attack I’m less likely to clench my jaw, which is helpful for after the panic attack passes so I’m not left with a sore jaw on top of all the other post-panic attack problems.
2. Shave your legs
You might think this falls into the not-always-very-helpful advice to take a nice relaxing bath, but hear me out. Baths, for me, are nice to relax in if I’ve had a long day but if I am already in anxiety mode, sitting there alone with my thoughts is a horrible idea.
So I take a shower instead. You get all the muscle relaxing benefits of the warm water but it’s more active. The sound of the shower drowns out your thoughts a bit and the attention needed for shaving takes your mind off of whatever is triggering your attack. (Obvious caveat, but I know I should mention it anyway, if you are suicidal or struggle with self-harm, wielding sharp objects is probably not a great idea to cope with a panic attack.)
3. Have an imaginary conversation with the doctor
My panic attacks are almost always triggered by anxiety over some aspect of my health. Based on what I’ve read, that’s true for a lot of other people too. It’s not always possible to talk to you doctor right away, and rushing to the ER every time you have a panic attack isn’t really going to be helpful (Seriously, ER doctors and nurses are great at dealing with medical emergencies, I’m sure, but in my experience, they really don’t help when it comes to panic attacks. Plus it’s expensive.)
So, rather than make yourself feel worse by talking to nurses who don’t know what to do with you or leaving a bunch of half-coherent voicemails to your therapist, maybe try just imagining the conversation you wish you were having with your medical professional of choice. Imagine yourself in their office, describing your symptoms, and explaining how you are feeling. Then imagine them telling you that the symptoms are not indicative of anything serious, and that they are not worried about your health. This is where all that visualization practice will come in handy. Make it believable. Essentially, this is positive self-talk, but in the voice of a trusted professional. It helps, for me.
I don’t want to sound like I’m advising anyone to never talk to their doctor about troubling symptoms, but if health anxiety is a problem for you, it’s not a bad idea to at least put off calling the doctor until the panic attack has passed, then you can reassess and see if it’s necessary. Maybe set some parameters for yourself. Like, for me, if I have more than three panic attacks in a week, I call my doctor and schedule an appointment with a therapist if I’m not currently seeing one regularly. If it’s just one or two, I know I will be alright. Three is my limit.
My physical environment reflects the state of my mental health. When I’m depressed or anxious, my house is messy. When I feel good, the house looks good. This is obviously related to my energy levels during different mental states, but it’s handy because it also sometimes works backwards.
Say I’m anxious, I’ve been depressed for a few weeks and the panic attacks are starting up again. I look around and I can see that I’ve fallen behind on a lot of the daily upkeep of the house. If I can force myself to get up and clear off the floors and counters, make the bed, wash the dishes, then I can kind of trick my brain, it seems. I will look around and see a more orderly living space and, since I associate this with a healthy mental state, I feel better. It doesn’t always work, but at least it gets me up and moving, and lessens the guilt associated with feeling “lazy.”
7. Make long term plans
It really does help to have something you are looking forward to. Making fun plans is something that almost always takes the edge off of my anxiety. It’s tricky though, you have to set up the plans far enough in advance that it doesn’t make you more anxious.
For example, if I am having a panic attack, planning to have coffee with a friend the next day isn’t going to calm me down, it’s going to make me stress out even more about needing to “get better” in time for the date. But if, while having a panic attack, I call up my mom and we talk about how she is going to come visit next month, this helps A LOT. It’s got to be near enough in the future to be exciting, but far enough out that you don’t have the pressure of having to start getting ready for it right away. Getting your mind out of the present moment during a panic attack and into a pleasant future is crucial.
I think, for anyone who has suffered with anxiety or panic attacks for any length of time, guilt becomes a such a big factor in our lives. We feel guilty when we can’t live up to our own or other’s expectations, we feel guilty when we struggle with things that other people seem to find so easy, and worst of all, we feel guilty when we feel ourselves becoming a drain on our loved ones. We know that they love us and want to help us, but after a while it feels bad to always be the one reaching out for help. It’s easy to feel needy, clingy, and annoying and that just makes us feel that much worse and alone.
I totally get that.
But it’s alright, because sometimes reaching out to a stranger can be just as, if not more, helpful. There is this wonderful website, 7 Cups of Tea, where you can log in as either a talker or a listener and it pairs you up with someone to talk to. It’s a mental health community so there’s a good chance you’ll be paired with someone who has struggled with things more or less similar to yourself and will be able to give a sympathetic ear.
This website has come in so handy for me a couple times when I’ve awoken in the middle of the night to a panic attack and didn’t want to wake up my husband who had work in the morning but *needed* to be talked through my attack.
I don’t think it can replace having a regular support system, but it’s a good resource to keep in your back pocket anyway.