Thursday, October 8, 2015

Coping Mechanisms for the Perpetually Anxious

Note: This post contains some affiliate links.

[caption id="attachment_1724" align="alignright" width="300"]Also, according to the internet, fear turns you into a giant, bald pig-baby with too many teeth. Also, according to the internet, fear turns you into a giant, bald pig-baby with too many teeth.[/caption]

Ever since I was old enough to handle my own medical issues, I've had to come up with ways of managing my anxiety. I've tried distracting myself with mantras until my voice went hoarse, taking nearly every member of the benzodiazepine tribe (no small feat for a pill phobe, let me tell you), even snapping a rubber band against my wrist until it raised purple welts on my skin. At this point, I've managed to narrow down some of the things that help me get through everything from general anxiety to a full-on panic attack.

Before I list them, I want to emphasize that, if you're experiencing anxiety or panic disorder, it doesn't have to be this way. Psychology and psychiatry have made great strides in handling anxiety, and, though I haven't personally met anyone who was fully "cured," can give you some extremely potent tools to help you manage things on your own. That said, I'm also not going to claim that anything here (or anywhere else, for that matter) is going to help you "kick anxiety's butt." Living with anxiety or panic disorder is a journey for a lot of people, not something that can be easily overcome.

No stress-reducing tool is foolproof and sometimes people need a little extra help. If you find yourself in that situation, here are some of the ways I get through it:

Get a physical and some bloodwork.

Does your heart race  and feel like it's skipping beats when you worry? Is the fear of a heart attack part of the reason you panic? I wrote an article ages ago (previously for Yahoo's freelancing program, which, for some reason, now appears here) about living with heart palpitations, and I still stand by its advice-- if you haven't seen a doctor yet, go. Even if a physical doesn't detect anything physically treatable, it can ease your mind and reduce your stress level. If possible, ask your doctor for some bloodwork. Abnormally low levels of certain vitamins and minerals can cause some really bizarre and anxiety-provoking physical symptoms.

Say, "I am having a panic attack."

This is probably the weirdest piece of advice I can give, but it's an enormous help. Even if you're telling someone you don't know well, texting a friend, or otherwise informing someone who isn't really able to help you, it can help. For me, stating that I am having a panic attack kind of cements it in reality. I acknowledge I'm having one, say the words, and it forces me to recognize that this is the same song-and-dance that I've been through a thousand times before. Acknowledge it, recognize it, and know you will make it through.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="221"] They may not look like much, but tinctures can be absolutely heaven sent in an emergency.[/caption]

Try the right herbs.

Some of the herbs I recommended for heart palpitations work for anxiety, too. Chamomile is great, as are skullcap, passionflower, and lemon balm. Try taking them as a tea, or, if you don't have any issues with alcohol-based products, use an herbal tincture. Tinctures are probably the quickest way to get the herbs into your system, so they're good to have on hand for emergencies. Try these single-herb tinctures or this anxiety-specific tincture from Mountain Rose Herbs, or this blend from HawaiiPharm. If you prefer a tea, this one's chock-full of chamomile and lemon balm, with a very pleasant, cooling flavor from the spearmint and lavender. (It makes a really nice, delicate iced tea if you find that heat or hot weather exacerbate your anxiety, too.)

Note: As with anything taking internally, please consult your doctor if you're nursing, pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or are on any medications. Avoid chamomile if you have allergies to plants in the ragweed family, and avoid skullcap if you have liver problems.

Breathe to this gif.

Just follow the motions of the shapes, breathing in and out as they move. It's a simple activity that engages your eyes, encourages long, deep, calming breaths, and gets you to focus on something outside of the panicky feelings.

Try some old-fashioned smelling salts.

If you find yourself helped by aromatherapy or find that stuffy, stale air is an anxiety trigger for you, smelling salts are a great, portable way to keep some help on hand without having to worry about spillage. (As a bonus, you'll also get to feel like a very fancy Victorian lady.) Try this blend by Moon Goddess Magick, which includes plenty of anxiety-calming chamomile oil.

Try some Rescue Remedy.

If you're not familiar with Bach's flower essences, they are essentially a homeopathic dilution of different flowers. Bach maintained that physical illness was the end manifestation of a deeper malaise, and developed the flower essences as a way to treat the emotional and mental states of patients. Though flowers are used in preparing the essences, the end products themselves are highly diluted enough that they don't contain any allergens from the original plants (they are preserved with alcohol, however). Rescue Remedy is one of Bach's most famous concoctions, used on people and pets the world over during times of intense stress. I've used it myself with a degree of success, even though I'm not really down with the idea of homeopathic remedies. (Rescue Remedy is also about 15% brandy, so if the flower essences part doesn't work out...) If you're worried about spillage, try stashing some Rescue Pastilles in a pocket or purse instead.

Carry a "pocket stone" or a set of prayer beads.

If you don't use a mala, rosary, or other configuration of prayer beads in your daily life, it might be a good idea to see how they can benefit your anxiety level. I recommended them in the past for people with heart palpitations or benign arrhythmias, but the effect here is the same-- using prayer beads or rubbing a pocket stone and repeating mantras is an activity that engages your hands, your mind, and your voice. Even if you don't believe in the "power of prayer," this practice can help distract you and self-soothe. Since the throes of a panic attack can end up making minutes feel like hours, this is also a good way to help fill the minutes and avoid the feeling that you've been panicking for an eternity.

If you're so inclined, try finding a worry stone made from a gem associated with grounding or protection, like smoky quartz or obsidian. If you choose to use a beaded bracelet or necklace instead, try using wooden beads that can be anointed with anti-anxiety oils-- the added bit of aromatherapy can help add another sensory dimension to using them. Check out these lovely palm stones from Soul Mama's Rock Shop, or this black obsidian stone from The Silver Goddess.

Lastly, maintain.

For awhile, I was tempted to treat my panic attacks as something I only had to deal with while they were happening. I was perfectly content to ignore them and pretend everything was normal in the spaces between attacks, largely because that's how the people around me wanted to treat things-- normal was acceptable, acknowledging that I had panic attacks and would keep having them until something was actually done about them was not. Unfortunately, this attitude didn't get me very far.

If you aren't under the care of a psychologist, now's the time to consider it. If that isn't an option, try taking up stress-lowering activities like meditation. Meditation doesn't have to be expensive, there's no "right" way to do it, and there are endless resources online for guided meditation, transcendental meditation, self-hypnosis, and everything in between. If you're just starting out, visit Calm.com for a brief meditative break every day. It only takes a few minutes, but a few minutes per day can have a dramatic impact over time.

[caption id="attachment_1719" align="aligncenter" width="200"]I don't actually have a caption for this. I just really liked this picture. I don't actually have a caption for this. I just thought it was pretty.[/caption]

Panic attacks are a long-term issue with a short-term presentation. Knowing how to take care of yourself when you're feeling okay is just as important as knowing how to handle an actual attack. There's no simple, foolproof way to "cure" panic attacks once and for all, due in no small part to the fact that it's often the fear of having a panic attack that triggers one. (Which is a pretty messed up catch-22, isn't it?) The tips and strategies here are ones that have helped me, but they might not necessarily be as helpful for you and are not intended to take the place of a professional doctor's advice.

Do you have any panic attack reducing strategies that work well for you? Let me know in the comments!

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