Dealing with Anxiety and Panic Attacks

I was unsure at first whether I wanted to make this blog post, as I haven't discussed my mental health with many people in my life. My Tumblr occasionally plays host to anxious ramblings but I'm not usually very clear about it. I've seen Tumblr masterposts about mental health, which are helpful, and saw Zoella's video on Youtube, which was not (I know she meant well, but it felt like she was just listing stuff from NHS factsheets and it was all very vague). Every person is different, so here I am providing a different viewpoint, which I hope might help. I'm nowhere near better but I wanted to share what I've found to be helpful. I apologise in advance if you think that it's all bullshit...

So I suppose I should start at the beginning: how I ended up like this. 
In 2013 I became ill with some sort of stomach flu. It basically destroyed my insides and refused to heal. It still affects me now - I can't drink alcohol, I'm lactose intolerant, I have GERD (acid reflux) and I have difficulty digesting food in general. If I pick up any sort of stomach bug, no matter how mild, it just throws me back again and ruins all the progress that I've made in healing. I've often called it the world's longest hangover, because that's how it feels most of the time. I used to throw up a lot, which has luckily become a rare occurrence thanks to medication, but I still have chronic nausea that is pretty much constant. A lack of diagnosis made me worry about what was wrong, and thoughts of impending doom ensued. And thus my physical health problems became the source of my mental health problems.

Even though I consider myself to be quite an introvert, being alone can make me panic. What happens if I get sick? What if I die because there's no-one to help me? I also have problems with being away from places that I consider to be 'safe' (i.e. at home) because I worry about fainting or getting sick. My parents and boyfriend started to worry I'd become agoraphobic because even going to the Co-op on my own made me tense (it's less than 100m from my house). I don't drive, so rely on public transport to get around. I became unable to travel alone. The poor people of Greater Manchester had to deal with a girl hysterically crying her way around the city. I still find it incredibly difficult to travel alone, which sucks because Kris lives in Wales and my Dad lives in the North East. I used to take long distance trains all the time, now I find it almost impossible. I'm plagued by extremely invasive thoughts as my brain constantly worries about my health and life in general. It can even reach the point that I have night terrors if I sleep alone because I only have my mind for company.

Since graduating I've had awful luck with finding a job, so worries of unemployment and lack of money are heaped on top of me. After losing 3 people in 3 years (my uncle Christmas 2012, my beautiful friend Megan in March and my grandad in August this year) I worry about everyone around me. I get anxious about pretty much anything these days, and often the smallest negative thing can tip me over the edge and can either leave me in hysterics and uncontrollable crying, or slumping into depression where I'm unable to even get out of bed. And it sucks.

I'm currently attending sessions with a mental health professional, in a scheme run by my local NHS called ThinkPositive. It's basically assisted self-help, where I'm guided through help sheets for anxiety and depression and have therapy in order to develop an understanding of my illness. I haven't done much yet, but just getting everything off my chest is very therapeutic. I'll have to update you on how it goes and if it's successful, but I do recommend you get help if you need it!

And so, onto my own tips for beating anxiety and panic attacks

So this is more for the Panic Attack side. All of the fact sheets that I've ever read about panicking have banged on and on about breathing. Now, I have a few problems with this technique. The concept of breathing in a controlled manner is great because it's intended to get your heart rate down, so you can relax. However, if you're actually panicking it can be extremely difficult. It's quite easy to end up holding your breath which makes it all a lot worse. So my recommendation is to try to breathe normally, and slowly. None of this in for 3 hold for 3 crap. When people try to get me to breathe like that it just makes me more aware that I'm panicking. If you just try to gain control of your breathing by focusing on inhaling slowly then you can help it return to normal, which will bring your heart rate down.

Ignore your symptoms
If my temperature gets high, or I feel dizzy, or if my heart rate is high, I can work myself up into a panic. Over nothing. Try to teach yourself to resist the urge to monitor your symptoms associated with anxiety/panic. I am trying to do the same thing with my physical health problems as well. If my food isn't digesting properly, I start to worry, and the anxiety makes my stomach worse which makes me panic. Vicious circle. I'm not saying completely ignore any health issues, but usually they're not as bad as you think. I have to tell myself every day that I'm not going to throw up, and before therapy I never ever believed myself.

Occupy your thoughts
How are you going to ignore your symptoms and those pesky invasive thoughts? By distracting yourself! Unemployment has been killing me because I don't have enough to do. Plus I can be quite lazy so finding ways to occupy myself with minimal effort is tricky. Find activities that you like and fit them into your day. For me, it's creative things - sewing, playing music, drawing and colouring, wrapping Christmas presents, writing blog posts for a readership of about two people...
This part is entirely up to you, find something you enjoy that can distract you not just physically, but mentally. Shopping is quite good, and so is exercise. But I'm a certified couch potato so fat chance with that one.
I think the key here is task mastering. If you get yourself into a routine, then you have more sense of purpose. Writing out to do lists and ticking them off means you have proof of achievement. Even if it's just 'had a shower' 'fed the cat' you've done something!
If you have to do something that has a high risk of anxiety and panic, such as travelling, then my best advice is plan plan plan! Leave yourself time to do things so you don't have to rush. But at the same time, don't leave too much time otherwise the anticipation will get to you.

Talk to people
Please don't suffer in silence. If you can just find one person to talk to, it can really help. Be honest and help them to understand what you're going through. If they offer you advice acknowledge it, even if you think it's a load of balls. They're just trying to help. I have an awful problem with snapping at people if I'm at my 'hysterical/depressed' level, which I'm trying to work on. Because there are no excuses for being rude to someone, not even mental health.

Dealing with adrenaline
This stupid chemical can be such a bitch. Linked with the 'fight or flight' response, it basically gets you all riled up and makes everything worse. How can you make it go away? Movement. The amount of times I've stamped my feet around in public is ridiculous, anyone would think I was attempting a shitty riverdance. But it really helps, even if you look silly. It does piss my sister off though when I'm sat next to her and my legs are twitching everywhere...
If you don't want to look silly in public, go for a walk or do some exercise. It makes adrenaline serve its purpose and your levels go down.

Let your body rest
This links with the whole adrenaline thing, because anxiety and panic attacks can be very draining physically. So get that rest, you need to recover! Even if it's just curling up on the sofa for a bit, take some time out to relax.

Masturbation and sex are great stress relievers, and that extends to anxiety too. I'd maybe steer clear of casual sex/friends with benefits though, because that can be an emotional minefield and if it goes tits up you don't need more things to worry about...

Treat yo self
Because when is there ever a reason not to? Even if it's only small, a treat can be a big help.

Graded exposure
Don't try and jump in the deep end and hope that it'll make everything better, these things take time. By easing yourself into what scares you, you can learn to overcome it. For example, to beat my problems with train travel (still working on it), I used to always take them with someone else, starting with shorter journeys and then trying long distance. I can now do short-ish journeys (under 2 hours) alone if someone either waits with me beforehand or is there to meet me at the other end (preferably both). But eventually I should be able to do it all on my own and it'll be awesome.

Safety behaviours
Therapists either love or loathe these. They're great because you have something to keep you calm, much like a little kid with a baby blanket, but if you become dependent then they're bad. One of mine is carrying around bottles of water. Yay water, it's good for you! Yes, it's a good habit, but what isn't good is that I become distressed if I don't have one with me. I need to learn to live without it if a bottle of water isn't possible. Another is carrying around paper bags. Because they're handy to hyperventilate/barf into. But it's a bit weird taking one with me everywhere, and eventually I'd like to stop. Safety behaviours are good, but not let them become a crutch, because if they're taken away then you're right back where you started.

Sleep troubles
So I can get extremely distressed if I sleep alone. My saviour has been Noisli, which I discovered when writing essays because it helps block out background noise. I'm a big fan of the rain and thunder tracks. If you try to ignore invasive thoughts and concentrate on the sound of rain then it can really help you drift off. I sometimes use tv as something to fall asleep to, but I'm not sure if that's healthy. I also have a cuddly koala toy that I sleep with, because somehow I've reverted back to being a five year old. But it really does help. My best advice is to try and calm yourself before you try to sleep, because when you're alone in the dark with nothing but your thoughts, they can be a right dick.

Thanks for reading all of this, I hope that it'll help someone. The worksheets that I have been using in my sessions can be found here (labelled 'other resources').

No comments