A few years ago, I went through months of chronic and distressing anxiety. I’d be in bed – or getting ready for bed – and a sudden wave of nausea would hit me. This was followed by hot and cold sweats, light-headedness, and trembling. My chest hurt and my heart would race like it was trying to escape my body. My brain went into hyper-drive, blasting a series of run away, run away, run away messages. A couple of times, I truly thought I might be having a heart attack, and even went to the emergency room. When no physical cause for my symptoms was discovered, I was sent home, bewildered. How could there be nothing wrong? I felt not only several hundred dollars poorer, but also embarrassed and ashamed. Quite frankly, I thought I was going nuts. I had no idea these were panic attacks. What I felt was physical, not mental…right?
I knew I couldn’t keep going to the ER, but also knew something was wrong. I tried taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds for a while, but these left me feeling zombie-like and numb, and they didn’t actually prevent anxiety attacks. I didn’t want to be medicated – I just wanted something that would stop these attacks in their tracks. The doctors didn’t seem to understand (or believe) I wasn’t drug-seeking, and weren’t interested in explaining what was happening to me. It was demoralizing and discouraging. I decided to figure this out for myself – to find the safe equivalent of hitting myself in the head with a coconut – something to STOP the panic once it had started.
I started by tracking my symptoms and soon discovered my bouts of nausea were either caused by gastrointestinal issues or a “gut punch”. You know the gut punch. It’s the feeling which triggers our fight or flight response, such as when we suddenly get bad news. Studies have shown people with anxiety have a faulty flight switch. In other words, it flips on at random, sending panic messages from the brain to the various systems in the body, thus generating the physical sensations of a panic attack.
When the nausea would start, I’d go through a brief mental checklist to determine the source: Is this possibly food poisoning? Did I eat something which could trigger IBS / diverticulitis? Most of the time, I was able to rule out a gastrointestinal cause for the nausea AND I was able to determine my IBS flare-ups and panic attacks followed similar — but distinctly different — patterns. Identifying these differences was the key to feeling better. I made some minor changes to my eating habits which GREATLY diminished my gastrointestinal issues, which in turn reduced some of my stress and meant less confusion between my physical and my mental health symptoms.
I began practicing the following thought-stopping / distraction techniques at the first signs of a panic attack:
- Counting backwards from 100
- Switching on a funny show and closing my eyes, picturing the action in my head instead of watching it on the screen. This forced me to focus on what I was hearing and helped me turn off the panic switch by activating a different area of my brain
- Taking long, deep breaths – three seconds to inhale, three seconds to exhale
These three techniques worked wonders for me, but it wasn’t an overnight cure. I had to put these methods into practice and repeat them until I’d conditioned a habitual, healthy response to anxiety. There were nights when I would have to count backwards from 100 more than once, or would lie awake listening to Bob’s Burgers for hours, but now I can honestly say I haven’t had a full-blown anxiety attack in at least two years. I still get the gut punch on occasion, but am able to quickly calm myself and avoid those horrible heart-attack sensations.
The 4 Steps
- Track your symptoms
- Separate brain and body symptoms. If possible, make changes to your daily habits to reduce symptoms related to medical conditions
- Find the patterns
- Use early distraction
If you are currently taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, DO NOT stop taking them without your physician’s consent. Mood disorders are complicated and many require medication to restore chemical balance in the brain. The point of this post is NOT that you do not or should not need medication. The point is you can attack your anxiety INSTEAD of allowing it to attack YOU! When you learn to control your brain’s faulty fear factor, you not only minimize the physical and mental distress of a panic attack but also maximize the effectiveness of your medication. You will start to FEEL better!