The past couple months have been filled with doctor appointments, anxiety attacks, and learning how to cope. I was diagnosed with anxiety in 2016, though I’ve always really struggled with it. Having general anxiety disorder and a panic disorder means literally anything can trigger me at any point. I’ll be honest with you: it sucks. Sometimes it’s all-consuming and devastating and I feel like I’m going insane. Sometimes I can quickly identify what triggered me and work through it. Regardless, once I’m able to acknowledge that I’m having a panic attack, my immediate goal is always the same: stop it. Since I’ve been putting a lot of energy towards re-learning how to deal with my anxiety recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying out different ways of helping myself. Some I’ve learned in therapy. Some I’ve learned from my role as a peer health educator at Seattle University. Some I’ve learned from my friends. Some I discovered accidentally.
Anxiety is the most common mental health diagnosis in college students―this means I know I am not alone. This article is not meant to supplement seeking professional health, nor is it me pretending like I have all the answers. This is me sharing what I’ve learned, because one huge thing I’ve learned is that help from a peer―someone who understands firsthand what you’re going through―can be just as helpful as professional help.
- Get a cold compress
I’m not a scientist by any means, but this one I discovered through a friend and was told to do so by a therapist. A common side effect of an anxiety attack is sweating/getting really hot, so the cold compress will help you physically feel better in one of the most physically uncomfortable moments you could have. It will also claim your attention―if you pull a compress out of the freezer and press it to the back of your neck, it’s more than likely that will claim your attention. I use my cold compress on my hands, arms, face, neck (back and front, but mostly back), and legs. It takes a few minutes to help me really calm down from the anxiety attack, but this tends to be my go-to method to begin the process of overcoming it. I bought mine at Walgreens for under $10, and I love it because I don’t need to put a towel or anything between the compress and my skin. And, for when I need it, I can pop it in the microwave and use it as a hot compress too.
- Put your hand on your stomach and take deep breaths. Make sure you can feel your stomach expanding and contracting
Usually, breathing gets really shallow when you’re having an anxiety attack. This aids the anxiety and allows for the feeling to last longer, or potentially leads you to hyperventilate. Placing your hand on your stomach and making sure you can feel your stomach expand allows you to 1) inhale deeper, giving you more air, and 2) assure yourself that you are indeed getting enough air. This is another thing where it gives me something else to focus on. If I’m only focusing on feeling my stomach move with each breath, I can sometimes trick myself into focusing only on that.
- Don’t fight the anxious feeling
I hate anxiety. I think everyone does. It’s natural to try to fight the feeling when you feel an anxiety attack creeping up, but this gives the anxiety more power. I listen to a meditation that tells me to say, “Hey there anxiety, how are you today?” I feel silly doing it, but I’ve found that if I can have a “conversation” with my anxiety, asking why it’s here and what I can do to help it, sometimes I can figure out what triggered me and work to fix it. I try not to avoid my triggers, except for the unnecessary ones like spiders. Avoiding triggers gives them more power over you.
- Get comfortable meditating
I still feel a bit silly when I meditate, but when I’m having an anxiety attack, I honestly don’t care how goofy I may look―I’m just desperate to stop the attack. Seattle University paired with the Pacifica app, so if you use your Seattle University email, you can have free, unlimited access to the app. I use it to track my moods, write about my day, and meditate. Some of my favorite meditations are Anxiety Emergency, Coping With Morning Dread (because my anxiety is by far the worst in the morning), Relaxing Slumber, Falling Asleep, and Peaceful Landscape. Meditations are divided into five categories: Relax Now, Mindfulness, Stressful Situations, Calm Down, and Inner Strength. You’re allowed to pick a background noise (mine is ocean waves), which plays throughout the meditation and continues to play after the voice has stopped speaking.
- Practice positive self-talk
I’ve gotten really good at this, though it took a lot of practice. Anxiety attacks can make you feel like you’re going crazy, you’re going to die, or you’re having a heart attack (these are the most common, extreme, I-feel-like-I-need-immediate-medical-attention reportings). They also make you feel flat out terrible. It can be easy to blame yourself for your anxiety, or feel like somehow you deserve it, but you don’t, and it’s not your fault. Try to imagine that a friend has come to you feeling anxious. Would you be as mean to your friend as you are to yourself? Talk to yourself like you would talk to your friend. I often imagine my mom is talking me through an anxiety attack because she always knows just the right thing to say to calm me down. Another kind of silly thing I do (once I’m feeling better) is pretend that there’s a little Edna (yes, from The Incredibles) in my head. Sometimes she’s beating the hell out of the anxiety with her rolled up newspaper. Sometimes she’s (kindly) telling me to pull myself together. She only appears when I need her, and while she’s hilariously manifested into Edna, I know she’s really me, overcoming an anxiety attack.
- Talk to your loved ones
There’s something really important everyone should know, remember, and believe: You are not alone. Anxiety has a bad habit of making people feel like there’s no one they can talk to. If you’re like me, and like a lot of people, anxiety and depression often come together. This can lead to feeling like you’re going to die (anxiety) and like no one would care if you did (depression). This is not true. I held in how I was feeling until I reached my breaking point. I asked my roommate to leave the room, I called my mom, in tears, fully sobbing, and begged her to fly me back home for the week. My mom is amazing and continues to be amazing, helping me every step of the way. I know I can call her when I need her, even if it’s 1:30 AM and she’s definitely been asleep for hours. I know I can talk to my roommate, ask her to spend time with me, whether it’s watching a movie or walking downtown. I know I can lean on my boyfriend, ask him to sit with me and watch a movie when I don’t want to talk about it, or to hold my hand as I word vomit what’s going on. I have an amazing support system, and even though sometimes my brain tries to trick me into believing that I don’t, I know I can always prove it wrong. (And if I can’t, Edna definitely can.)
- Stimulate both sides of your brain
Sit up straight. Place your feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes or set your gaze on one thing. Put your hands on your thighs. Take three deep breaths. Lift your left hand (one), then your right (two), until you’ve counted to forty. Continue to take deep breaths as you do this. You may do it as many times as you’d like, but keep the numbers consistent: always three deep breaths at the beginning, always forty thigh taps. This stimulates both sides of your brain, and allows the rational side to level out with the anxious side. (I learned this one in therapy a few years ago, so I can’t remember the exact science, but I know it’s worked really well for me.)
- Go for a walk
This, strangely, has been one of my favorite self help methods. I never used it before this year, but it’s helped me immensely and consistently. Part of this is talking myself out of a space I got anxious in: my dorm, the cafeteria, a classroom. Sometimes the walk is just pacing, like if it’s snowing or pouring rain and I’m having an anxiety attack. Then I’ll pace across my room with my cold compress in hand. Usually, though, I’ll leave the area and go for a walk. Physically feeling my feet hit the ground helps me ground myself (no pun intended), and allows me to focus on something other than the tightness in my chest. If I’m pacing in my dorm or in an area that isn’t super populated, my walk will get a little funky. I’ll place my feet really slowly on the ground with each step, so that I can feel every part of my feet making contact.
These, of course, are not the only ways to deal with an anxiety attack. There’s also no one right way to help yourself during an anxiety attack, but these are methods that I have discovered greatly help me. Again, this is in no way meant to replace professional help. There are three tiers to helping with a mental illness: self-care, medication, and therapy. I engage in all three. The road to recovery can be incredibly difficult and full of relapses, and that is okay. The important thing is that you’re trying.