Imagine that you are in a crowded place, perhaps a shopping mall, and you start to feel anxious. This isn’t your ‘normal’ level of anxiety. This feels different. You begin to notice that everything around you becomes “too much”…it’s too noisy, the people too close, the lights too bright, the sounds too loud. As the anxiety peaks, you realize that you’re having trouble breathing. You try to catch your breath, and you can’t. Your chest begins to hurt, you alternate between feeling cold and clammy (then hot and sweaty). You feel dizzy. Your heart races, and you think you’re going to pass out. You start to panic as you think that you are going to die. You have never felt so afraid before.
If you’ve never had this happen before, you may find yourself at a hospital emergency room because you are sure that you’ve had a heart attack. After hospital staff check you out, you learn that you’ve had a panic attack.
While many people experience anxiety (sometimes at a severe level), panic attacks are often the experience that brings them to see their doctor, therapist or both…and you’re not alone. According to Government of Canada data, one in ten Canadians suffer from an anxiety disorder–panic attacks being one of them. Unfortunately, like most mental health issues, it’s not something that people like to talk about. So, when I discovered author, Matt Haig, I was delighted.
Who is Matt Haig?
Matt is the bestselling author of Notes on a Nervous Planet. Matt also shares, in his many books, his experience of having mental health issues…including a panic disorder, anxiety and depression. In “Notes” he describes the connection between the rate of change in our planet (through technology, media, personal interactions) and our mental health. More importantly, he shares his coping strategies from the perspective of someone who has been there.
Throughout his book, Matt Haig talks about the role that self-care has played in his recovery and maintenance of mental health. So, I share with you, Matt’s tips for avoiding panic attacks.
How to exist in the 21st century and not have a panic attack.
- Keep an eye on yourself. Be your own friend. Be your own parent. Be kind to yourself. Check what you are doing. Do you need to watch the last episode of the series when it is after midnight? Do you need that third or fourth glass of wine? Is it really in your best interests?
- Declutter your mind. Panic is a product of overload. In an overloaded world we need to have a filter. We need to simplify things. We need to disconnect sometimes. We need to stop starring at our phones. To have moments of not thinking about work. A kind of mental feng shui.
- Listen to calm noise. Things that aren’t as stimulating as music. Waves, your own breath, a breeze through the leaves, the purr of a cat, and best of all: rain.
- Let it happen. If you feel panic rising the instinctive reaction is to panic some more. To panic about the panic. To metapanic. The trick is to try to feel the panic without panicking about it. This is nearly–but not quite–impossible. I had a panic disorder–a condition defined not be the occasional panic attack but by frequent panic attacks and the continuous hellish fear of the next one. By the time I’d had hundreds of panic attacks I began to tell myself I wanted it. I didn’t, obviously. But I used to work hard at trying to invite the panic–as a test, to see how I could cope. The more I invited it, the less it wanted to stay around.
- Accept feelings. And accept that they are just that: feelings.
- Don’t grab life by the throat. “Life should be touched, not strangled,” said the writer Ray Bradbury.
- It is ok to release fear. The fear that tries to tell you it is necessary, and that it is protecting you. Try to accept it as a feeling, rather than valid information. Bradbury also said: “Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get.”
- Be aware of where you are. Are your surroundings over-stimulating? Is there somewhere you can go that is calmer? Is there some nature you can look at? Look up. In city centers, the tops of buildings are less intense that the shop fronts you see at head level. The sky helps, too.
- Stretch and exercise. Panic is physical as well as mental. For me, running and yoga help more than anything. Yoga, especially. My body tightens, from hours of being hunched over a laptop, and yoga stretches it out again.
- Breathe. Breathe deep and pure and smooth. Concentrate on it. Breathing is the pace you set your life at. It’s the rhythm of the song of you. It’s how you get back to the center of things. The center of yourself. When the world wants to take you in every other direction. It was the first thing you learned to do. The most essential and simple thing you do. To be aware of breath is to remember you are alive.
Panic disorders don’t have to be a part of your life. There are many things you can do; including self-care tools, mindfulness practices and medication. If you’re looking for a breathing exercise/meditation that can help to calm down your anxiety level, a free download is available on my website.
And now…if you want a reminder of how we’re meant to breath, here’s a good teacher. Enjoy!