Last night, I had an anxiety attack that kept me awake for most of the night. While my anxiety has certainly improved, it has not gone completely away...but I can manage it much better than I used to. I do not feel like anxiety is running my life.
I ran through some of my favorite methods of staying in the present to help calm me down and take me out of my emergency state of mind into one where I could sleep and get through today.
Focusing on what is happening in the moment
This is an old trick, but it works.
For me, closing my eyes and meditating that way sometimes worsens anxiety attacks. Personally, I find it more grounding to see what my five senses can pick up. I'll count how many things I can feel, how many things I can taste, how many things I can hear, see, and smell. I try to distinguish between my fan and my laptop fan, the birds from the crickets, the taste of toothpaste from the ice water I drank before bed.
I will take inventory of the things that are physically around me—my dresser, my bed. I will think about where they came from. I will think about whether or not I need a new one. I'll make a shopping list.
A lot of anxiety is about being in your head and worrying about things one cannot control. By bringing myself into the immediate present and focusing on what I can control,
Imagining good things happening
Anxiety pushes the most negative thoughts and possibilities into one's mind. Death, sickness, failure. Pushing back on these ideas with positive thoughts is hard, and may initially cause anger.
I came across this tactic over a year ago, and it initially enraged me. Thinking of good things happening when so much bad existed in the world seemed like some kind of disservice to anyone suffering. I felt like thinking good thoughts and imagining positive outcomes was some sort of luxury that I could not afford.
Then, I had to confront that idea. Why did I think that I was not allowed to think good thoughts?
When trying to work through your anxiety, you may find that it will push back on you, like mine did. After all, anxiety is something you do to help keep you alive. It's a survival mechanism! And so when you try to reason with or quiet this survival mechanism, it may become cranky. You may find other emotions surfacing as you think of positive situations—Maybe the idea that you do not deserve good things, or that thinking good things is setting yourself up for disappointment, etc.
Personally, I try to observe whatever feelings are coming up, and instead of becoming mad at myself for having "bad thoughts," I try to question why they are there and why they formed to begin with.
Refraining from making big (or small) decisions
Whenever I'm having an anxiety spell, I refrain from making large decisions (moving, buying a car), and small decisions (having a drink, getting into an argument with a friend) until the anxiety has calmed down.
Remember, when fight-or-flight has taken over, the decision-making part of your brain literally shuts down. I used to make decisions when I was panicked because they felt like good short-term fixes. They made me feel better in the moment...but almost always backfired later on.
When anxiety is making decisions, this is not the best of me, the most logical or strategic part of me. I had to learn to make decisions when I was feeling calm. This requires me to delay gratification and wait.
This is something that is frustrating in the moment, but after-the-fact, always makes me feel good. I feel more empowered when I know I'm making a decision because I know it's best for me, as opposed to reaching out for anything that will calm me in the moment...a temporary fix.
Last night, the decision I put off was texting someone else to try to get them to make me feel better. This was something I almost always did in the past. While it's good to reach out to friends, it's not good to make your personal emergencies someone else's emergency all the time. I decided that if I still felt bad at a reasonable hour, and still wanted to talk to someone about it, I would message them the next day.
I wanted to break out of the habit of overly-relying on others to calm my anxiety, and I did manage to wait until it was an appropriate time to talk to someone. It may seem small, but realizing I have this kind of control and that my anxiety is not running my life helps me to make good decisions for myself.
Overcoming anxiety is not something done just once...it takes practice. It takes multiple situations, multiple examples, and multiple trials to finally build and strengthen new habits.
Perform a hyper-focused task
Similarly, performing a hyper-focused task helps pull me out of an anxiety spell. Cleaning is a good one. So is doing a puzzle. I prefer something where I have to physically be moving around, but lately I've also been learning how to write music and learn another language, and that has also helped.
Why? Again, it's pulling you out of fight-or-flight. Instead, you have to solve a problem. And, once you've solved a problem, then there's emotional gratification.
However, it's easy and tempting to fall into something that creates more anxiety but feels productive, like diagnosing oneself with an illness or falling into a conspiracy theory web. When picking a task to focus on, it's important to pick one that is productive or constructive, and not overly hypothetical or fear-inducing.
Anxiety makes focus very difficult, and praciticing focus can also help when one is not in the middle of an anxiety attack.
Did you know exercise can help create new pathways in the brain? As someone who has struggled with anxiety for most of my life, I credit yoga and dance for pulling me back from dark moments. When I started, I would take dance or yoga classes every single day, and I still dance or do yoga on my own every day.
Dancing along to a favorite song immediately pulls me into the present moment and gets me out of all the anxious "what ifs?" in my mind. Exercise has amazing short and long-term benefits...from keeping one calm in the present moment to helping build new nueral pathways in the brain.
Many people desire a cure or a fix for anxiety to make it go away permanently. I find that while there are ways to quiet the feelings down temporarily, managing anxiety overall is a marathon, not a race. It requires patience, acceptance, and a number of healthy tools in one's arsenal. It requires examining unsettling feelings and trying to understand why they are there, and it may even require reprogramming one's own thoughts and habits.
It's a lot of work, for sure, but once I started to get through panic attacks without making large decisions, I started to realize there's peace on the other side.