I get panic attacks. I experience anxiety. I’ve fought long battles with depression.
Many people who know me are surprised when I say that. Why is that?
Even though talking about anxiety has become more normalized, I still find there to be a stigma around men openly talking about their experience with these things. (something I would love to change).
After living with anxiety for over a decade, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to managing it. I’ll lay that out at the end – but first – the backstory.
My first bouts of anxiety and panic happened as a teenager. My parents’ marriage was ending and I was acting out. I wasn’t doing great in school because, well – I just didn’t care about school. I felt my life was stressful enough.
At first I thought something was making me sick. Every morning on the bus ride to school I would sit by myself and look out the window.
I’d think, and think, and think.
I’d get a tightness in my chest and start to feel sick to my stomach. By the time I was partway through my first class, I would need to excuse myself.
I’d go to the bathroom, lean over the sink, look in the mirror and try to ground myself as I started to get dizzy.
I’d sit down on the floor, slowly developing a cold sweat. Eventually I would crawl over to a stall and throw up. I’d return to class feeling exhausted. Sometimes I’d fall asleep.
It was over a year of consistent episodes like this before I realized I wasn’t actually getting sick – I was getting panic attacks. It was many more years before I would begin to learn how to effectively manage them.
Disclaimer – If you are having panic attacks you may need to be medicated at the advice of a physician or psychiatrist. For a season, I was. It gave me breathing room to learn to manage my anxiety. I am no longer medicated, even though some would say I should be. I don’t think being medicated for anxiety is bad. Sometimes it’s exactly what you need.
When I was 18, I became a Christian. I still suffered from panic attacks, but a great circle of people around me helped me learn healthy ways of avoiding, coping with and understanding the root causes of them.
Never had a panic attack? Here’s what it’s like.
Sometimes people explain panic attacks as an extended time of irrational fear. It’s a description I don’t fully resonate with. I guess it’s just a different way of explaining what I experience. Or maybe the experience of panic attacks vary from person to person.
When I think of fear, I think of a bear wandering over to my tent at night when I’m camping. I have fears about that. I think of danger to my family. I have fears about that. I think of not being able to successfully provide for my loved ones. I have fears about that. These are all fears that I have intellectually.
For me – panic isn’t really like any of those things. Panic manifests itself in me physically first – and I wouldn’t even describe it as fear. It starts out almost as more of a physical or physiological feeling.
As Sarah and I have talked about it, I would most accurately describe it as follows.
Imagine yourself in this situation:
You’re at home. It’s late. You just finished cleaning up dinner.
You had a nice conversation with your family. The meal was good, the dessert was your favourite.
It’s dark outside, but warm inside.
You notice the trash is full and you decide to take it out.
It’s cold out, but you don’t worry about putting on a jacket. You’ll be right back anyway.
You go outside and get goosebumps. It’s a little colder than you realized. No big deal, but you move quickly.
You go around to the back of the house, watching the ground in the dark.
Then, garbage bag still in your hand, you look up and see someone standing there in the dark waiting.
Someone who shouldn’t be there.
When you first see that figure in the dark – what do you feel?
A panic attack is like that feeling when you first identify something that startles you.
It’s that feeling of your breath drawing in quickly. That feeling of your heart jumping in your chest. That feeling of not being able to breath for a split second. Not a “fear” per se, but the very feeling of being primally “afraid” before you have a chance to process what is happening.
Except – when you have a panic attack – that feeling doesn’t just last for a second.
It goes on for hours.
It can lead to trying to figure out “whats wrong”, even if nothing is. A fast track to negative, circular thinking patterns.
How I used to manage panic wasn’t very effective.
I’d go home and try to go to sleep. Often, when I woke up the panic attack would be gone but I’d still be drained. Often, it would get worse before I could get to sleep – sometimes much worse. In either case, I’d lose the rest of my day.
Over the years I’ve learned much better strategies, although I still find myself in the middle of it more often than I would like.
I share this in the hopes that if you or someone you love struggles with panic or anxiety, it may help.
My Top 10 Ways to Manage the Frequency & Severity of Panic & Anxiety:
1. Limit my caffeine intake.
This point is first for a reason. Do you love coffee like I do? For me, this is the one single thing that has the greatest chance of triggering a panic attack. The nice thing is it’s something I have complete control over. I limit myself to 2 cups of coffee per day. If I go beyond this number – I’m at a very high likelihood of having an attack the following day. If you drink a lot of coffee and have panic attacks, cut back immediately and watch what happens.
I can only count on one hand the number of times that a panic attack has subsided quicker than I expected after prayer. It’s not instant. What prayer does do is it put me outside of myself for a minute. Prayer reminds me of the power and love of God. It grounds me in a way nothing else can, and gives me the perseverance I need.
3. Tell someone close to you – while it’s happening.
When I name a panic attack it loses some of it’s power. Call it what it is – you can get through it.
No need to talk about it all day, but pulling a spouse, friend or trusted coworker aside to say, “Hey, I’m having a panic attack right now. I’m not at 100% but I’m pushing through” creates valuable perspective. Say it out loud. The world probably isn’t crashing down around you, even if it feels like it is. Set these people up for this comment before you are in the middle of an attack and tell them when it happens.
4. Don’t surrender your day to it.
I never used to do this. And I suffered for it.
Instead, stay at work – focus as best you can. Keep your hands busy. Keep that social engagement.
You won’t be at your best but you can make it through. Having something to focus on can make an attack go away more quickly. The minute I clear my calendar and give in, I give panic permission to roar down the tracks of my mind and body like a runaway train.
5. Limit your alcohol intake.
If I have alcohol 2 days in a row, I am at a higher risk for having an anxiety attack that night or following day. Simple.
6. Eat well.
This is more of a cumulative/preventative step. If I eat trash for an extended period of time, attacks will increase in frequency. Also simple.
7. Get enough rest.
This is valuable for so many reasons beyond mental health. If I’m dog-tired for 4 days I’m setting myself up for failure mentally, emotionally and physically.
8. Regular exercise.
Beyond the obvious physical benefits, exercise releases a ton of beneficial chemicals into your brain that minimize anxiety. You’ll find that in all kinds of health and wellness research and I’ve experienced that.
9. Limit screen time before bed.
Really, this is connected to getting enough rest and getting to sleep when you do go to bed – both very helpful.
If you need to work late, engage night mode on your phone or use a tool like Flux on your computer. They are tools created to minimize the effect of screen time on your circadian rhythm.
10. Get professional counselling & talk to a doctor.
Often, anxiety is triggered and aggravated by underlying, unresolved issues from your past or present.
Once I identified what thought patterns were related to my anxiety, I was better able to make a plan and work through them. I’m still working on this one. My current triggers generally revolve around my performance and striving for unnecessary perfection.
If you don’t already have a helpful counsellor, we have a great list of counsellors in this post.
I still get panic attacks. And I still work to manage them well. I don’t always do all of the above perfectly, but I hope to get even better.
Doing all of these things together helps me to manage the frequency and severity of anxiety attack episodes. And, when I’m doing these things well, I am more able to quickly identify what my trigger point is when panic strikes.
Maybe you just realized you’ve been experiencing panic attacks while you were reading this post. If so, be encouraged – that’s the first step to getting better.
Do you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks? What do you find the most helpful?
Comment below with your strategies or questions!