Everyone feels anxious sometimes. It’s completely normal and healthy to feel anxious before/during/after a life event. What’s not normal is when this feeling persists and begins to overtake your thoughts. Anxiety is more than someone overreacting, and generally the person experiencing it knows they are catastrophising, they just can’t control it. Sometimes feelings of panic come, seemingly, out of nowhere for reasons a person is not aware of.
I’m sure everyone has heard of “triggers”–especially due to the popular use of the term in the social justice warrior crowd. A trigger is something–anything–that brings back a memory or feeling of a traumatic event. This can be smell, touch, taste, words, sight…really anything. Often times the person is unaware that the trigger happened or what caused it. Sometimes there’s no trigger at all, stress in general can bring about the chaos of anxiety.
If anxiety is severe enough and unresolved it can result in a panic attack or anxiety attack. We’ve had numerous people come into the ER with symptoms of a panic attack thinking they are dying. Because it absolutely feels like it. A panic attack is a physical response to substantial anxiety that causes a person’s heart rate to increase, hyperventilate, lose concentration, disassociate, chest pain, dizziness, numbness…as a nurse I can tell you that a lot of those symptoms are secondary to the increase in heart rate and breathing. You can actually put yourself into what’s called “respiratory alkalosis” meaning the carbon dioxide ratio in your blood is skewed. This can result in serious physiological effects…and definitely makes a person feel like they are dying.
If you can’t relate to a person’s emotions or experience, this doesn’t make it any less valid. Your understanding of their experience is irrelevant to how they are feeling.
So what do you do?
-If you see someone looking panicked, catch their attention. While experiencing a panic attack the person feels completely out of control and letting someone know they are not alone can help ground them and bring them back to feeling safe.
-Get them to a quiet area. During a panic attack you feel completely overwhelmed and your environment can absolutely make this worse.
-Get them to breath. Slowing down breaths can get their attention on something other than their thoughts and physical feelings as well as keep them from hyperventilating.
Tips to preventing a panic attack or stopping it:
Believe me, I’m very well aware of the horrible sensation a panic attack creates. The feelings of being completely out of control and in immediate danger…yet not knowing why this is happening. However if you pay attention to your body you can start to recognize when an attack is brewing. You’ll notice feeling irritable, chest tightness, trouble concentrating, increased heart rate. Here’s what to do:
-Take time out. Find a quiet place where you can be alone.
-Breath. Take slow deep breaths. It helps to close your eyes and concentrate only on your breathing. I like to use the 5,6,7 rule. 5 seconds to inhale, hold for 6 seconds, 7 seconds to exhale. I cannot accentuate the importance of breathing enough! This is imperative to preventing and stopping a panic attack.
-It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to hurt. It’s OK to need to take care of yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Let it out, gather yourself, and get back to what you were doing.
-If you can distract yourself by doing something you enjoy–a walk, music, scents…anything that’s calming to you.
Anxiety is a horrible feeling and coupled with depression, this makes for an ugly two-headed monster. Often both conditions cause a person to exhaust their ability to cope and self-medicating through alcohol and drug abuse can add a third demon to the already debilitating conditions. Depression, anxiety, and addiction are difficult to talk about separately because of the marriage between the three. To be continued.
Don’t be afraid to seek out help. There’s nothing wrong with medication–sometimes it’s the leg up you need to gain control over your mind.
You got this.
If you are feeling like self-harming or suicidal please call 911 or head to your nearest Emergency Room.
The 211 Helpline is available for crisis support. They are open 24/7 and are judgement free.
I love you. Please reach out if you need help. Hope does exist.