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4 Unconventional Strategies for Coping With Anxiety

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If you’ve had an anxiety disorder for as long as I have, you’ve probably heard it all before:

Take deep breaths.
Repeat affirmations.
Take a walk.
Get a good night’s sleep.
Call a friend.

Etc., etc., etc.

While there’s nothing wrong with these traditional coping methods to help manage your panic attacks, there are certain go-to techniques that are always suggested, and they may not always work in the times when you need them most.

And, after dealing with panic attacks for nine years straight, I personally don’t find it helpful when someone tells me to simply “breathe.”

If you’re looking to expand your coping strategy toolbox, here are four things that have helped me deal with my disorder that you probably won’t find in any self-help pamphlets.

1. Schedule some “Spontaneous Saturdays.”

Facing another full week of work or school on a Sunday night has always been one of the toughest challenges for me to overcome. When most of your panic attacks are sourced from obstacles related to your normal weekday routine, it can be hard to look ahead and see five straight days of that staring back at you.

One Sunday night during my freshman year of high school, my parents suggested that we plan something fun to do the following weekend so that I’d have something to look forward to. It turned into them planning an adventure and not telling me what it was until we were in the car on the way there, which turned out to be quite successful at keeping me distracted during the week.

We ended up going to the local aquarium and participating in the “penguin encounter” program, where you’re allowed to enter a room full of free-roaming penguins and pet them. To this day, that memory is still one of my favorites, and it sparked the idea for making it a weekly ritual to plan something random to do the following Saturday whenever I was feeling anxious about the week ahead. We referred to these days as “Spontaneous Saturdays.”

The great thing about this strategy is that you don’t have to plan anything fancy for it to work. Try getting a friend to visit a local park neither of you have ever been to, or plan a scavenger hunt around town. The point is to do something you’ve never done before. The more unconventional the idea, the better it will serve as a distraction!

2. Stick your head in ice water.

Studies have actually shown that changing your surroundings and body temperature can also change your mood. As unpleasant as it may sound, forcing yourself to dunk your head in a bucket of ice water can be a great way to stop a panic attack in its tracks.

For one, it’s definitely a distraction. (It’s hard to think about the fact that your heart is racing when your face feels like it might freeze off.) It’s also a great way to bring some humor and lightheartedness into an intense moment of fear. If you can stick your head in ice water without cracking a smile about the ridiculousness of it, I give you props!

If you’re apprehensive about testing this one out, try simply standing inside your freezer door for 20 seconds or hopping into a cold shower. Whatever you can do to change your body temperature and get your mind focused on something else.

3. Give your anxiety a human name.

I know this one sounds weird, but hang in there while I explain.

Early into my diagnosis, we decided to start calling my panic disorder by the name, “Sheila.” I honestly couldn’t tell you when or why this started happening, but it ended up being an effective coping mechanism.

Naming my anxiety helped me separate the negative emotions I was feeling from my own personality. Whenever I was worried and not feeling like myself, I told myself the thoughts I was having were only there because “Sheila” was trying to interfere.

As weird and as crazy as it sounds, doing this often helped me fight off the emotions and realize I was only afraid because my disorder was feeding me lies. Recognizing that these negative thoughts were not my own helped me rationalize that I didn’t have to let them ruin my day.

I can make that decision. I’m the one in control.

4. Face your fears head-on.

This seems counterintuitive, but one of the things that made me feel the most in control of my fear was heading straight into whatever situation was causing it.

Sometimes, this meant giving a presentation in my speech class even though I was crying and in the middle of a panic attack. Other times, it meant empowering myself to grab the keys to our family car and ask my parents to finally show me how to drive.

Sometimes, the fear can overwhelm us for so long that we don’t even remember why we were afraid to try something in the first place. And, if I’m honest, the situation has never once ended up as bad as I had always feared that it would.

If you’re able to face a fear head-on without pushing yourself to a point where it’s unhealthy, I recommend trying it. For me, the feeling that came from conquering something I had worried about for so long was always incredibly powerful and rewarding, and it’s something that often helps get me through the daily challenges of dealing with anxiety’s constant ups and downs.

Do you have any unconventional coping techniques? I’d love to hear them!

Unsplash photo via Finn Hacksaw

Originally published: August 15, 2018
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