If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the unpleasant symptoms of an anxiety attack. They can feel awful and intense, as well as crop up at the times you least expect it. (For a full list of anxiety attack symptoms, check out the Anxiety Centre’s list here)
Sometimes, you are well aware of the triggers of your anxiety, and sometimes you are not. Regardless, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by this invasive feeling. When I first started experiencing this, I learned some distraction techniques that helped me focus on anything other than the symptoms to feel “normal” again. Here are 10 things to do when you’re having an anxiety attack that have helped me in the past.
1) Do square breathing. Inhale for 4 seconds. Hold breath for 4 seconds. Exhale for 4 Seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Repeat as needed. Our breathing can become erratic when our adrenaline is pumping due to the fight/flight response – ease yourself into calmness by getting your breathing under control. Take as much time as you need to steady your heartbeat and energy levels.
2) Make sure you’re not in an environment that is dangerous to you (ex. trekking up a volcano or being around shitty people). Sometimes, our surroundings or certain elements within our surroundings can irk us and trigger that fight/flight response. If this is a situation where you can leave comfortably, you can definitely do so. If this is not a situation where you can leave comfortably, try diverting your attention to something else (see #3 and #4).
3) Do a simple mind/concentration game such as Animal. Vegetable/fruit. Mineral. In this game, you list an animal, vegetable, and mineral according to the alphabet. For example, start with ‘A’. An animal would be an Aardvark. A vegetable would be Arugula. A mineral would be Aluminum. Then you move onto ‘B’: An animal would be Bat. A vegetable would be Broccoli. A mineral would be Beryl. Go through the entire alphabet to help you re-focus yourself.
4) Similar to the mind/concentration game, you can try a mindfulness exercise to focus on the present moment aside from your anxiety symptoms. List 5 things that you can hear, 5 things you can see, and 5 things you can smell right now.
5) Take a pause and think about your basic physiological needs: did you remember to eat today? Have you had enough water? Did you get enough sleep? Sometimes, our bodies trick us into having a panic attack when we are not well nourished. Try sipping on a glass of water to stay hydrated. Similarly, try snacking on something healthy to normalize your blood sugar levels. Take a (power) nap if you need to!
7) Do something physical like go for a run or a walk or something where you can redirect the restlessness/extraneous energy into something fun. For example, I like to fence – I have always found it tremendously stress-alleviating to smack/stab/slash someone for fun and have teammates cheer you on when you land a hit. Plus, there are tons of evidence-based research that backs up exercise contributing to improved moods.
8) Listen to music or watch Netflix. Sometimes, you might be experiencing a panic attack because there has been prolonged unhappiness and/or instability in your life and you can use the distraction. Certain lyrics of a song might resonate with you, becoming the mantra that gets you through the day. You might even identify with a character who is going through the same things that you might be experiencing, and you find solace and resilience in taking a leaf out of their book. Sometimes, even having this on in the background will help cancel out the inner white noise and negativity.
9) Call up a friend/family member – because they love you and want to hear from you and want you to be okay. It can be tempting to withdraw into that vacuum of sucky-ness (ha – see what I did there?), and that is legitimate when you know you need alone time. However, social supports are proven protective factors in your mental health so don’t be afraid to check-in with someone!
10) Go to a place of comfort, be it nature or a pillow fort. Retreat into your sanctuary and safe spaces. Go where you need to feel whole and recharged so you can carry on.
About Mariette Lee
A lover of swords, writing, music, reading, travel, long hikes, and epic snowball fights, Mariette believes in bettering the world with grace and pizzazz. As part of her mission to become a socially-conscious citizen, Mariette engages youth in the York Region through fundraising and volunteering projects via her role as the Youth Mentor of We Can Change the World Day. A Masters student in Counselling Psychology, Mariette aspires to work with youth and young adults who may be struggling during the critical periods of their lives, and empower them to be their best selves every day. Mariette is the Co-Founder of Gap-Gen and designs programs to inspire and encourage youth in their pursuits and connections.