As the expression suggests, living with anxiety feels as if you are inhabited by a monster constantly whispering about your fears, insecurities and your worthlessness, your inevitable failures and the catastrophes which you can’t avoid and are probably creating. It is estimated that 13-14% of people in Europe  live with anxiety. One symptom is anxiety attacks. Some people only realise that they have been suffering from anxiety when they experience such an attack.
An anxiety attack differs from a panic attack. It is usually a response to a stressor – often a thought or feeling or specific dread. People feel apprehensive and full of fear. Their hearts may race and they may feel short of breath. Often people feel out of control and may become extremely tearful. A panic attack may include some of these symptoms, but usually occurs without a clear stressor. Both can be terribly frightening. If you experience anxiety attacks it is important that you are prepared with an emergency response.
Here are my favourite techniques to respond when anxiety attacks:
Listen to the pattern of your breath when you are anxious. It can give you a clue as to how best to respond to your anxiety. If you are hyperventilating – taking fast, shallow breaths, feeling faint, and fearing that you can’t catch your breath, try to breath into a paper bag. Breathing in and out using a paper bag will recycle air, returning carbon dioxide to the body, which will naturally make the breath deeper and slower. Do this for a minute. If you don’t feel better, try again for another minute.
If you are not hyperventilating, you can use the calming breath technique. Breathing exercises such as those used in yoga classes are effective in reducing anxiety. One simple exercise I use with clients uses counting inward and outward breaths to calm the mind. Simply breathe slowly in through your nose for a count of 4, then breathe out of your mouth for a count of 4. Repeat. Then breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, and out of your mouth for a count of 6. Repeat. Then breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, then breathe out of your mouth for a count of 8. Repeat. Check to see if you feel better. If you don’t, repeat the exercise again, concentrating on the sensation of your breath.
Mediation, when practiced regularly, can help people reach a relaxed state more easily. Practice makes progress when it comes to mediation. If you are experiencing an anxiety attack, try to find somewhere to sit quietly or lie down. Then try progressive relaxation, also known as a body scan, which can be especially helpful. Progressive relaxation soothes as you tense and relax muscles – isolating and focusing exclusively on one group of muscles at a time. Begin with your toes, and work up through your muscles to your head, where you may focus on relaxing the muscles around your chin and eyes. Guided progressive relaxations are available on Spotify, YouTube, and on CD [ 9 for ideas see reference 3 below]
In the throes of an anxiety attack use your active imagination to help your de-stress. First, isolate the location within your body where you feel the greatest sensation of anxiety. Use imagery to help unwind and relax that spot. Cute, warm, and amusing imagery will be of the greatest help. If you feel tension in your shoulders imagine a collective of kittens massaging the knots away. If you feel butterflies in your stomach – imagine yourself in your stomach with them, asking each to settle on your arms and flutter no more. One client recently expressed her fear of butterflies, so, using imagery, we collected the butterflies and they turned into Golden Retriever puppies, ready for a cuddle.
Anxiety attacks are created by dreadful thoughts running through your mind. One way to settle these thoughts is to repeat a mantra. While there are mantras on the internet, you may benefit from one that you write specifically for yourself. The mantra should be full of words of kindness, understanding and love. The words “should” or “must” cannot be part of any mantra.
For example, if you are caught in a cycle of catastrophic thoughts you might like to repeat a mantra such as:
I am imagining the worst that might happen. My worries are my own creation. I can give my worries power or I can withdraw that power. I may not be able to control everything, but I can control my thoughts. I can resist my worries day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, and even second-by-second. I have faith and compassion for myself.
If you are filled with feelings of dread and self-worry:
I will accept myself as I am
I am proud of all that I am achieving
I will rejoice in my gifts and strengths
I will forgive myself if I stumble
I will give myself compassion and love
Every day is a new day for me to thrive.
While avoidance is not a long-term technique for managing anxiety, if you are ruminating or feeling a panic attack, distracting yourself with a change of scene or activity can help. Go for a walk, particularly in nature, to reset yourself. Try colouring, which I have detailed in a previous blog [link], which involves both sides of the brain, stimulates creativity, and can help to calm the mind. Even listening to some upbeat tunes at this time, get up and dance, just break the pattern of your anxiety for a moment to reset your emotional clock.
The long-term cognitive approach to anxiety is to create an internal dispute. Disputing your anxiety helps you reframe situations, see hope, and utilise self-compassion. If you experience anxiety ask yourself to challenge your view of the stressful situation – have you been overgeneralising, personalising, or catastrophizing? Is there an alternative way of looking at this issue? Sarah Wilson , in her compendium of suggestions to utilise in one’s challenge with anxiety suggests an ancient adage, “ First make the beast beautiful”, meaning accept that your anxiety – it is something that originally may have been created to help you, but overtime has started to inappropriately misfire. When you make the anxiety beast beautiful you may say to yourself, “Thank you brain for alerting me to potential danger, but I know I am safe right now, you can go back to your guarding post”. Developing the process of dispute is an area of action where a therapist can be of significant help. If you cannot create this dispute for yourself, utilise the resources of a counsellor.
Prolonged anxiety is extremely challenging to your health. If you have been struggling with anxiety for a while please seek the help of a counsellor or a doctor. They may recommend a combination of therapy and even medication to help lessen your anxiety. There is no shame in needing help. Take charge of your future. Everyday is a new day for you to thrive. Start gently now.
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About the author: Angela Watkins is a psychologist and counsellor at RED DOOR Counselling in Hong Kong. Her current clinical work focuses on parenting, family life, parenting SEN children, anxiety, OCD, career change, stress management and divorce.
Sources 1: Prevalence - 2004: The ESEMeD/MHEDEA 2000 Investigators,2004, Prevalence of mental disorders in Europe: results from the European Study of the Epidemiology of Mental Disorders (ESEMeD) project 2011: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/sep/05/third-europeans-mental-disorder 2: Sarah Wilson, 2018, First we make the beast beautiful: A new journal through anxiety. Dey Street Books 3: Spotify and You Tube links to try. Try Deepak Chopra on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/user/sarahkonieczny5/playlist/5LJDLPj5vhzbrTwk5k07nV Try Relax for a while on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86HUcX8ZtAk