When Panic Attacks - Part 1: Easy Anxiety Techniques
Anxiety is one of the most common complaints that bring people into therapy. It is estimated that in any given year, 18.1% of the population could qualify for an anxiety disorder diagnosis. As with any reason people come to therapy, effective treatment of anxiety will vary based on the person and will be different based on your life stressors, personality, schedule, strengths, etc. Thus, the following list isn’t a comprehensive list of techniques- rather, think of it as an introduction to some ideas and strategies that may be helpful. I’ve listed some very basic techniques here that you can implement right away. I’ll be following up with other articles that will describe some more nuanced and complicated techniques. I hope you find an idea here that may be helpful for you!
Eat/Sleep/Drink (Water)- When I was in college and called my mother on the phone to discuss a problem, she would always ask me the same basic questions: “Have you eaten today? Have you slept?” Reader- it annoyed me to no end. However, when I started working with people in crisis, I started to understand her wisdom. It’s no secret that our body and our mind affect each other.
For example, sleeping and eating problems are really common symptoms of both anxiety and depression. In the same way, sometimes addressing your lack of sleep, food, or water can help you feel a bit calmer and more in control, even without doing anything else. If you are feeling anxious, check in with yourself and see if your basic needs for food, water, and rest have been fulfilled today.
Relax- I have never, ever met a very anxious person who enjoys being told to “just relax.” I understand how invalidating that can feel. However, specific kinds of mindful physical relaxation CAN be really helpful when you’re anxious. Anxiety tends to kick our body into flight or fight mode- we sweat, our heart beats faster, our breath gets shallow, etc.
Our brain naturally gets focused on looking for threats and coordinating our bodies to attack/escape- and the blood flow increases to regions in charge of these activities. Because of this, logical thinking tends to suffer during fight or flight. Unfortunately, most of the problems anxious people face are not best solved by punching someone or running away. We need our logical mind and critical thinking skills to solve our dilemmas in productive ways.
Relaxation techniques counteract your fight and flight response by helping you consciously relax and counteract your sympathetic nervous system (which creates these physical signs of anxiety like breathing faster, sweating, hearts beating faster, etc.). One common technique taught in therapy is diaphragmatic breathing: breathing slowly in through the nose to the count of 5 while extending your stomach and then breathing out to 5 while letting your stomach tighten.
Progressive muscle relaxation (where you systematically tense and relax your muscles in organized groups) can also be helpful in calming your body down. Even exposing yourself to something cold can counteract physical anxiety signs. Once your body is more relaxed, your mind will often follow.
Do Anything- If you’re anxious because you’re overwhelmed, sometimes it helps to find one small positive action that is within your control and do that. If your house is a mess, do 5 dishes. Clean a corner of a room. If you have a lot of work tasks, pick the easiest and finish it. If the task you choose is too difficult to do, make it smaller. Taking an action takes you out of anxiety’s tendency to freeze you within a cycle of worried thoughts- it also often times will give you momentum towards further productive actions. Don’t let thinking get in the way of doing. Many people feel more capable once they’ve started accomplishing small tasks.
Links for More Information:
Understanding the Stress Response: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
Anxiety and Sleep (with Sleep Tips): https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/stress/stress-and-anxiety-interfere
Has Anxiety Killed Your Appetite? Here’s What to Do About It: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/anxiety-lose-appetite#1
How to Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation: https://www.anxietycanada.com/sites/default/files/MuscleRelaxation.pdf
How to Do Diaphragmatic Breathing: http://www.psychology.uga.edu/sites/default/files/CVs/Clinic_Diaphragmatic_Breathing.pdf
Superbetter: https://www.superbetter.com (This is a game that can help you prioritize and complete small tasks towards wellness)