Self-care plays an important role when you suffer from anxiety, even more when you are subject to panic attacks. Perfecting your self-care routine can help you recover from panic attacks easier, but can also prevent them. Good habits are the key to a better mental health, and this is what we are going to cover in this article.
I have personally been suffering from anxiety and panic attacks for most of my adult life, and I have tried many ways to prevent it. The first answer your doctor might give you (like mine did) is the use of medication. I have done it for years, treated for anxiety and depression at the same time. But I am now a firm believer that medication is not the right answer, and I do my best every day to avoid having to rely on them anymore. It doesn’t mean that I no longer suffer from anxiety or depression, it just means that I have found healthier, more natural ways to deal with them and their consequences on my health.
The rise of panic attacks: warning signs
When you suffer from anxiety on a daily basis, recognizing the warning signs of an approaching panic attack can be tricky, but if you pay real close attention, with time, you will be able to see them more easily. Every one can present different symptoms and my experience might not be yours. Here are some of the most common:
- Shortness of breath: your breathing is shallow (usually comes with the next symptom)
- Tightness of your chest (usually comes with the shortness of breath): in my experience this one feels like you cannot get a proper long breath, everything feels very tight and heavy. Sometimes, for me, it can even feel like a huge stone has been placed right there, hurting me and preventing me to move.
- Restlessness: you may feel on edge, and cannot stop moving. Your body is as agitated as your mind.
- Insomnia: when you suffer from anxiety insomnia can be frequent. Sometimes a rising panic attack is the reason why you wake up in the middle of the night, mind racing, body shaking and finding it impossible to fall back asleep.
- Nail biting: The repetitiveness of this behavior is a coping mechanism when you are facing challenging emotions. You can even do it without realizing you’re actually doing it. It is a habit I myself struggled to get rid of.
When you feel one or several of these symptoms at the same time, a panic attack is not far from you, but as I said before, there are ways to prevent it from happening, some good habits that you can put in place to help you.
Prevention: good habits and natural remedies that can help you
Mental health care and awareness are a big part of my life. I have seen many people suffer from it and experienced it first hand enough to know that if you don’t pay attention, one day or another your body will turn against you.
I will say it again, good habits are the key to a better mental health, and finding what works for you is very important. We all have different needs and tastes, so don’t be afraid to try out different things, arrange your schedule accordingly and give yourself time. Here is a list of different habits you can try out:
Writing regularly can help you with your thought process. It clears your head, all without any fear of judgement, because no one but you has access to your journal. You can let everything out on the paper, turn the page, literally and figuratively, and never look back again. It is a very powerful tool. I do this myself every morning, taking time first thing in the morning with a nice cup of tea at my side, and write down everything that crosses my mind. It is a good exercise, especially if like me you are an over thinker. It gives me clarity and calms me down. Definitely one of my favorite things to do in the morning. If you prefer you can of course write in the evening, to get what happened during the day on paper, to maybe clear your mind before going to bed and have a good night of sleep. Whatever works for you! An advice though: don’t stop after one page. I have realized that if I stick to about 3 pages of writing every morning, I unblock more things in that last page than in the two first ones combined. If you need an incentive, find yourself a beautiful journal that you actually want to open up every morning! There are also plenty of self-awareness journals out there with ideas for prompts and different exercises if that is what you need. I prefer to just let my mind wander word after word, but as I said before we are all different and there is not just one proper way to do this. Find what feels good for you.
Practicing mindfulness meditation can be a very effective way to manage your anxiety. It is a classic and you probably have heard many times the benefits of meditation. So I am just going to give you my take on it and try to explain to you how it feels. At first I found it daunting. The idea of having to sit down and trying to make my mind go silent for long minutes, maybe hours, was more than I could handle. I use the app “Calm”, and started their 7 days beginners meditation, with meditation practices not lasting more than 10 minutes. It was absolutely perfect for me and what I have learned during that week is that your mind will wander. Practicing meditation is not about trying to reach complete silence in your head. It is about realizing when it starts to wander and gently focusing back on your breath. Now I cannot go a day without my 10 minutes of meditation. Especially when my anxiety is spiking up, it gives me the focus and the headspace I need to have better awareness and control.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
This tool consists in tapping specific points of your face and chest with your fingertips. It is an alternative anxiety therapeutic intervention that combines physical movements and cognitive elements. It has been proven to improve anxiety and depression, but also excessive worry, irritability, sleeping difficulties, etc. I myself use it regularly to work on my core believes. It takes about 10 to 20 minutes, and even if I felt a little bit silly at the beginning I stuck with it and can feel the difference.
Stop picturing the very flexible yoga teachers, with their seemingly impossible poses you see any time you hear the word yoga. Yoga is actually a very powerful tool, that adapts itself to you and your body and helps with three very important things when you suffer from anxiety and panic attacks: breathing, muscle relaxation and visualization. It will help you find your balance again, physically and mentally speaking. There are plenty of free online classes now, so you can try them and find the one that corresponds the most to your needs. If you have not worked out in a very long time, I would suggest attending an in-person class, because you will need to be aware of the position of every muscle in your body, and an instructor will make sure you do not hurt yourself as well as find you solutions if a specific pose is too challenging for you.
Daily exercise has been proven over and over again to improve your health. But you may not know that it also helps your mental health. Walking, even just for 5 minutes around the block, releases endorphins and helps get your cortisol (the stress level indicator inside your body) under control. I personally love going for walks in a park. The connection to nature is very important for the human mental health. I truly believe that man (in a general sense of the term) is not supposed to spend his life surrounded by buildings, pollution and concrete. Go back to the basics. Take the time to admire the floors blooming in spring, or the change of colour of the fall leaves before they dance their way to the ground. When I feel my anxiety spiking, or a panic attack approaching, I love being able to grab a jacket and leave the house. Even when it rains. Sometimes I even prefer doing it when the elements are lashing down at me, because it feels like the nature around me is as stormy as my own mind, responding to it. A good rain shower can really help cleanse your mind, even if it leaves you drenched and cold. Of course I am not telling you to go out and catch a cold. But going for a walk at least once week can be extremely beneficial to you.
Hobbies like dancing, writing, colouring, drawing, reading, baking, cooking, gardening … whatever it is that makes you feel good and relaxed. And no I am not talking about spending hours on your couch, binge-watching the latest trendy tv series. Something that involves you and your mind.
This is one of my favourites. I use essential oils almost every day. Essential oils have been scientifically proven to help your health, and they are also very good to help your mind. When I really feel like I am not able to control or tone down my anxiety any more I use a special blend designed specifically for my anxiety. Here is a link to help you navigate the word of aromatherapy:
Yes the food you choose to eat also impacts your mood and your mental health. I have a tendency to rely on fast-food when I am feeling down, but over the past few months I have become more aware of the fact that I do not feel better after eating. Quite the opposite actually. Here is an article to learn more about this interesting subject: Top 16 foods that reduce anxiety and depression
Mental Health Day
Sometimes this is what you need. To take a full day off from work, from people, from your life, to just take time for yourself and feel better. It is absolutely okay to do so. Better taking it when you feel the need for it than wait and burn out.
Whether you suffer from anxiety and panic attacks or not, positive habits play an important role in your well being, here is a link to learn more about it:
What to do during panic attacks
Sometimes even if you have all the good habits in place, even when you take the time you need for yourself… yes sometimes this fails as well and you can’t escape a panic attack. I had one quite recently, here is what happened:
I don’t remember all of it, and I know there had been some very present warning signs that morning, but as I tried to force myself to get ready for work it didn’t take long for my anxiety to overwhelm me and I soon found myself sitting on the floor, crying my eyes out, holding my knees, terrified because I just couldn’t breathe. I just couldn’t. I tried to remember some of my breathing exercises, but the only thing I could focus on was the fact that I was NOT breathing. And the panic took over. Once the panic took over, there was nothing I could do to stop it. Not by myself. So I asked for help. I was ashamed and scared, but I did it anyway. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP, IT IS OKAY.
Here is a breathing technique that I usually use during a panic attack to regain control of myself and that my housemate was kind enough to help me with during my latest episode:
- Breathe in deeply for 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds
- Breathe out for 8 seconds
Repeat this until you feel yourself calming down and your body relaxing.
There are also good meditation videos and EFT practices that you can access easily and that are designed especially for it. Here is a guided meditation for instant relief that you can use.
Panic attacks: the aftermath
Panic attacks are hard to explain to someone who has never experienced them, and it is even more difficult to explain their aftermath because you can look absolutely fine, but it doesn’t mean you are well. Panic attacks are tiresome, they leave you drained, exhausted, empty, ashamed and aching. Personally the only thing I want to do after is go back to bed and hide under my blankets for days. If you have the time and feel like this is exactly what you need then do that.
I strongly advise a self-care day or evening after such an episode. Take a bath, drink some tea, read a book, take a nap … do whatever you need to do to help your body and your mind recover from it.
When you can, and most importantly when you feel up for it, take time to reflect on what has triggered that episode. What was the true cause? It might be very obvious, or sometimes you will need to do a little digging.
Finding the root of these attacks will help you find the counter measures you can put in place to help you. If it is too much to do on your own, again don’t be afraid to ask for help. Therapy has helped me so much regarding my anxiety.
You can find help and resources on the NHS website: Get help with anxiety, fear or panic – NHS
My last advice for you will be this one: be kind and compassionate with yourself. I know it is easier said than done and I am guilty of beating myself up about it more often than I should too. But try and talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend. I promise you it will make a huge difference. Of course that doesn’t mean finding every excuse to not do the work necessary to put in place these new habits that you need, or the work needed for you to find the cause of these episodes. No, that is not what I am saying. But nobody is perfect, and from time to time you will slip up on your habits, and it may or may not contribute to another anxiety attack. But that’s okay. Start anew the next day, learn from the past experience, but don’t let it define your present.