This afternoon, I was sitting in the pharmacy in town reading. Something that I read, which was minor and not offensive, triggered an anxiety attack. Anyone who has ever had an anxiety attack can attest that they are no picnic. Typically, mine begin with my heart racing, my chest tightening, my brain shifting into high gear, jaws clenching shut, and my breath shortening. Sometimes these anxiety attacks pass quickly, but sometimes they leave me agitated for hours. I don’t have these attacks often, perhaps once a month or less, though in the past I’ve had them daily. Most folks I know who experience them recognize them as a little slice of hell.
Learning to deal with anxiety attacks has been a slow process. I tend to approach problems by wanting to know as much as possible, so I’ve researched the topic to death and have found that most materials are less than helpful. Through trial and error, I have found a handful of things that make a difference. Here is my top 6 and one to avoid:
Recognizing that anxiety is not the same thing as being crazy. The stigma associated with these sorts of issues can often be the biggest challenge that prevents you from dealing with the issue. Anxiety is not craziness. Anxiety attacks can be connecting to a handful of things. Often they are connected with the fight or flight mechanism in your brain. Certain stimuli become associated with the fear/fight or flight response and trigger it. That’s all. It’s actually a natural defense mechanism that part of your brain employs to protect you from danger. It’s just sometimes that mechanism is terribly inconvenient.
Exercise: Very little ends an anxiety attack for me as quickly as quickly as lifting weights, going running, or even going for a brisk walk. There are a few reasons that this is an effective strategy. For starters, exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which are a sort of happy chemical in your brain. Endorphins will usually calm you and lift your mood. Regular exercise can actually help alleviate depression and decrease the frequency of anxiety attacks. The other thing that exercise does for you is physiological. Getting your heart rate up and using energy can burn off some of the nervous energy that causes anxiety attacks. Further, heavy breathing can help cleanse adrenaline and other chemicals from your blood.
Prayer, meditation, and deep breathing: I hate this one. Not because I hate prayer, meditation, or deep breathing in and of themselves. Rather, I wonder if the guys suggesting it have ever had an anxiety attack. It’s really hard to stop and be calm enough to pray or meditate. In general, however, regular prayer and meditation can help decrease the frequency of attacks. This is particularly the case when individual people or situations are triggers for anxiety attacks. Praying for those people can help lessen fear of dealing with them. In addition, learning to slow down and focus during anxious episodes, though difficult, can be effective. I suggest starting with deep breathing. It’s the easiest place to begin and, as I stated earlier, can help lessen symptoms. From focused breathing, prayer or meditating over scripture is a short step.
Diet: I have read that decreasing caffeine consumption can decrease frequency of anxiety issues. I’m not sure if giving up coffee would be worse than the attacks, so I have’t tried. I take fish oil pills, which research suggests can help reduce anxiety and encourages the production of serotonin.
Exposure: I’m gonna say it: this one is miserable, but can be effective. If a particular identifiable trigger causes anxiety attacks, you can actually decrease its impact on your by slowly exposing yourself to the stimuli in small doses. As you do so, you will eventually harden yourself to the trigger. For example, anxiety that is triggered by certain social situations can be lessened by increasingly exposing yourself to those situations. Doing so will slowly decrease the fear response. It’s essentially facing your fear. There are ways to do this more effectively, and a counselor might be helpful to guide you through the process.
Counseling and Medication: Unfortunately, the stigma associated with seeking help from a counselor often prevents folks from talking to them until the pain associated with anxiety becomes overwhelming. A good counselor can help a client learn skills that can effectively help a person cope with or eliminate anxiety issues or deal with the emotional issues that are at the root of the matter.
Self Medicating: Folks who suffer from anxiety problems sometimes resort to self medicating with alcohol or illicit substances. While alcohol can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, this approach is problematic because using mood altering substances as a primary coping response can lead to dependency. In general, developing a lifestyle that lessens their frequency and learning to cope with anxiety is a better strategy.