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My 5-Step Game Plan for the Times I Feel My Anxiety Turning Into Panic

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My introduction to anxiety came at a young age. There were signs my parents dismissed as “normal” growing pains and fears. Those signs were all mild precursors compared to when the real deal finally reared its ugly head and fully introduced itself to me with a monumental, “Hello there, gotcha now.” I was 22 years old and had just had my first child. It was a regular day that ended with an ambulance being called and a trip to the ER.

But for me, there were never clear reasons why these surprise attacks would happen. I could be sitting on the couch watching TV or wake up with the dreaded feeling. After years of these surprise attacks, I started to develop a fear of being out in the middle of no man’s land without a hospital close by (because they make me feel like I’m going to die). It would set my anxiety into full motion. Avoidance of certain places became standard. Long drives in the middle of nowhere were a no-go. Forget camping or hiking. These avoidances only perpetuated more. It was an endless cycle of fear.

My first full-blown anxiety hell transpired while I was enjoying dinner out with my grandmother and daughter. Halfway through our meal, I felt a rush of heat (I’m assuming adrenaline) rage through my body. My heart started racing. I felt breathless and nauseous. These symptoms alone are enough to scare the heck out of me and make me want my mommy, but then… the racing thoughts. Even worse was an absolute inability to focus on one train of thought.

My first trip to the ER wasn’t the last. It took several years and a new doctor to finally put a name on it that finally made sense: anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder, to be exact.

So it had a name, but what the heck was I supposed to do with it? Better question, “How the heck do I make it stop?” I had never been afraid of anything (until meeting the dreaded panic attack). After spending some time in counseling and talking with my family doctor, I have come to fear it less and deal with it in a more productive way. Fearing it with no clear plan on how to utilize coping tools made me fear it more, thus creating more anxiety. At least now, I have a game plan that gets put into high gear as soon as I feel it coming on.

Step 1: Don’t ignore those sneaky little feelings that precede a full-blown panic.

It usually happens to me when I’m extra tired or haven’t been getting enough sleep. Immediately I try to redirect my thoughts and focus on the task at hand, telling the fear to go away and giving my full attention to what is right in front of me. I breathe and do my best to redirect my thoughts.

Step 2: When I start to fee like it’s headed my way, I will take half of an anti-anxiety pill to try to stop it before it can get started.

I don’t like taking medication, but I detest experiencing a full-blown anxiety attack or panic attack even more. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. Sometimes just knowing I have it, if I should need it, is enough to get me through. Peace of mind is priceless.

Step 3: I find something to do that requires me to focus and accomplish a task.

Think of it as redirecting your mind to productive mode. I live on a ranch and would go outside to feed all the animals. It was a process that required physical activity and an end game to work toward. If I was lucky, the feeling would slowly pass without anxiety arriving at the full-blown hell stage.

Step 4: The best advice my counselor gave me was this: “Think of it as a rollercoaster ride. You get on. It scares the hell out of you, but then it comes to an end. It doesn’t last forever. The restraining belt comes off and you are free to leave.” 

If my first three steps don’t work, well, this is the point where it gets a little dicey for me. The anxiety train has successfully pulled into my station and I’m left trying to cope until it decides to let me off. I repeat the advice my counselor gave me to myself, out loud if necessary. I make it my mantra: “The restraining belt will come off, and I will be free to leave.”

It can be impossible to explain exactly how anxiety affects me. It’s a wicked combination of physical and mental chaos. Someone who has never experienced a panic attack or any type of anxiety usually has a difficult time relating. I personally feel as if every cell in my body is on fire. I feel trapped inside my own body, as if I am in a prison of my own making. My thoughts are racing at warp speed. My brain is jumping from one thing to another, to yet another, and on and on. I wish for silence inside my head. I wish my heart rate would slow down and stop making me feel like I’m on the verge of dying. I’m hot and sweaty and nauseated. I don’t want to be touched. If someone touches me, it feels like overstimulation. I also feel claustrophobic if I stay inside. I can’t sit or lie down because my body feels like every cell is buzzing with energy. So I move. And this leads me to Step 5 and how I finish out my ride on this roller coaster. Because there is an end — you might not believe it in the moment, but there is, I promise.

Step 5: I walk. I go outside and focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

It may sound simplistic, but it has worked for me for a lot of years. If I have someone willing to walk with me, I prefer this. It helps having someone talk to me, a voice to focus on. I focus on one foot in front of the other and the friendly voice. If I don’t have someone with me, I call a friend (who understands) and ask them to please talk to me. Tell me stories, gossip, the news, anything they want. I am their captive audience! All the while, I continue walking and focusing on one foot and then the other.

There is light at the end of the ride.

The restraining belt has been released.

Worse for wear and exhausted, but free until next time.

And then I take a nap, because I deserve it.

Editor’s note: This is based on one person’s experiences and should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a doctor or medical professional for any questions or concerns you have.

Originally published: August 23, 2016
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