Francis Bacon. Study after Velaquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, detail. (1953). Incidentally this is also how I feel when I’m experiencing a panic attack.
This post is for people who are currently enduring frequent panic attacks and/or an anxiety disorder. I’m waiting for the tide of my own disorder to pass (and as the public health system would have it, I’m also waiting an eternity for my first therapy session), and I figured that it would be purposeful for me to share some tips for coping. One panicked person to another.
Welcome to the Panic Club. I know you didn’t think this would be happening to you. Mental illness is a poorly inserted plot device in soap operas. You read about it on the can in a feel-good Facebook post, sandwiched between pictures of cat memes. It doesn’t feel like something that would become your reality. But now it is. And it won’t let you forget it because your every waking moment is spent trembling or in anticipation of trembling. Personally, I never realised how slow time could pass until panic attacks entered my life and stretched every second thin. On my worst days I would look at the clock and descend into yet another attack because it was only 12:47PM and I already exhausted my list of “Relaxing and Distracting Activities”.
Chances are that you have always been a high-performing go-getter. You are used to swallowing and dealing with exorbitant amounts of stress, and this makes your panic attacks all the more unexpected. But this is what happens when you put too much on your plate—it breaks. After this, it’s really difficult to maintain any sort of image of yourself when you cannot even satisfy the minimum for being a functioning human. The first step to recovery is pretty simple. You have to swallow your pride and accept that you need to recover, because you have an illness.
Don’t beat yourself up over your attacks.
The panic attacks will already beat you up for you. An anxiety disorder is an illness in all sense of the word. It comes with symptoms, treatment protocols, prevention techniques, and is well-documented in medical journals. You’re not weak, you’re not crazy or abnormal, you’re not failing at living. You’re ill. A particularly bad case of the flu would also set you back in your work. Anxiety disorders are exceedingly common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders affect 18% of the population in USA. That’s about one in five, and you are that one in five. No biggie.
Self-compassion is more important than self-esteem.
How you feel and how you live your life shouldn’t be dependent on how you value yourself. You can be confident about your appearance, your talents, your intelligence etc., but the fact is that these things falter. Sometimes you’re not confident. You have lousy days and there are moments where experienced musicians miss a note. What is important then is that you be kind to yourself and offer yourself the time and space to rest. It’s okay if you make mistakes, it’s okay if you don’t know who you are anymore. All you have to do is breathe and relax. Let yourself recover. Let yourself cry. Make yourself a hot cup of tea. Make some fancy au naturel bread spread to decorate your morning toast. Do soothing things to cheer yourself up. If you’ve always been working hard and you’re at your breaking point, then don’t work for a day. Take a break.
Start by doing things badly.
I got this from this article and it has helped me tremendously in my own recovery. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. If you’re afraid of tasks and new activities, then you don’t have to turn the dial up all the way. Start where you’re comfortable, and sometimes that means doing a shitty job at a worthwhile task. Let yourself transition into unfamiliar territory. Warm yourself up to failing. Fumble around with the basics. You can only go up from there and eventually, you’ll be doing a fine job.
You are not alone.
Put your pride aside and confide in your loved ones. Be as open as you can about your mental illness because it’s not anything to be ashamed of, and you need all the help you can get. If you haven’t spoken to your mum in years, now is the time to ask for help. If you feel a panic attack coming on in a conversation, let your friends know and excuse yourself from the table. You don’t have to go through this alone. You’d be surprised at how kind even strangers can be. People can recognise humanity in other people. They will see that you need help, and they will offer you wet wipes, a bag to puke in, a space to sit down etc.
Surround yourself with reminders of love.
Change the wallpaper on all your devices to pictures of happy times, pictures of your dog, your flowers, your mum, your partner, a toy from your childhood. Put items with personal significance near where you will be most of the time (your bed, probably). Find your class rings, friendship bracelets, birthday cards, posters, teddy bears and mix tapes and put them in visible places around the room. Make a playlist of songs that remind you of your friends. It’s easy to forget how beautiful your life is when you’re down with an anxiety disorder because panic attacks cloud your immediate senses. You can resist that if your immediate environment contradicts what your attacks are telling your mind. Remember: you are loved and you love so many others.
Cry. Be vulnerable.
Don’t hold anything in. If you are nauseated, go puke. If you’re welling up inside, just burst into tears and cry until you run dry. If your stomach feels queasy, go sit on the toilet and leave when you’re no longer upset. If you feel like running out of a room, get up and run (avoid roads though, our goal is to keep you alive too). This illness will take a toll on your body. But don’t fight it if you desperately need some release. This is the result of years of pent up frustration. You need to let it go.
You are a surfer, ride the waves.
If your panic attacks develop into a prolonged anxiety disorder (characterised by anticipatory panic attacks, which is a fancy term for panic attacks that you ironically get because you are so terrified of getting panic attacks), you will be experiencing waves of attacks. You drift in and out of them and you never quite catch a break. The more you fight the attacks, the more anxious you will be about consciously staying strong and getting better faster. It doesn’t help and it’s unnecessary. Basically the only thing you have to do is breathe and not die. A good friend of mine who has been with this affliction longer than I have gave me this piece of advice—imagine you’re a surfer and ride the waves. At this point in your disorder, you’ve already been through many attacks. You’re like an expert on them. You’re a seasoned panicker. You already know the symptoms. Treat the attacks like an old friend. Let them come and they will go.
Life can be scary but give yourself the time to figure things out.
My anxieties were centred around vague and abstract fears of uncertainty. I had just graduated from university and I couldn’t understand what my identity or life was outside the context of school. I didn’t know how to be a good human being because I only knew how to be a good student. I didn’t know how to measure success. I was so confused and thrown out of whack that I couldn’t complete simple tasks like brushing my teeth. It all felt meaningless. Not in a depressed kinda way but almost in a logical kinda way. It really felt like there was nothing left for me to do. Perhaps you feel that way too, and if you do, your job now is to keep yourself alive until you figure out the next step. Think about previous moments in your life when you felt lost. You eventually found something worth dedicating your time to, and there was a period of comfort and belonging prior to the panic attacks. You will find such comfort again at some point in the future. Until then, let’s just eat and sleep and keep ourselves breathing. Do it for your loved ones.
Write things down.
Words bring clarity to the fuzziest of thoughts. When you feel well enough to sit up and do simple activities, consider keeping a journal of your experiences with anxiety. Note when your attacks occur and jot your feelings down so you can track your triggers. Attacks often happen without obvious or rational triggers (e.g. I got an attack because my curtains weren’t closed all the way and I couldn’t make a decision about leaving them that way). It helps to have a record to narrow the possible causes. This makes managing your attacks easier and it also provides an outlet for some release. Do certain foods make you more susceptible to attacks? What time do they occur? Do the nights comfort or agitate you? You will have a few clues if you track your recovery.