“I am a counselor, for crying out loud. This should not be happening to me.”
That is what I said to myself in November of 2019 when I was having my first panic attack. I had gotten home around 9:00 pm after teaching a class and felt fine. I got something to eat and got in bed. My wife was folding clothes and I was scrolling on my phone and then my breathing got weird. I didn’t think too much about it. After all, I just ate. Maybe I was just full. After an hour, it still felt weird. So, I decided to lay down and get some sleep. No matter what position I was in, I could not seem to catch a full breath. I got up and walked…same. I tried counting my breaths….same.
Then, I started to panic. I was fighting to get a full deep breath so hard that I was not fully exhaling. As a result, I was hyperventilating. My vision got blurry. My fingers started to tingle. Then, it occurred to me. I was having a panic attack. By that point, I had given in and the next thing I know, I am waking my wife up and telling her I need to go to the Emergency Room. The doctors confirmed that there was no physiological problem and that it was, as I feared, a panic attack.
But I am a counselor. I know how to handle a panic attack. Well, that is what I thought, and I was wrong. Very wrong. See, I had never experienced one before. I didn’t know that it would feel like that. Sure, I had worked with people suffering from anxiety. I had read all about them, but hear me when I say…it is not the same. Despite all of my education, training, and experience, at that moment, I felt powerless.
I realize now, what I needed, but lacked at the time, was a battle plan. Not some philosophical understanding of adrenaline and automatic thinking. I needed the red button under the glass casing. I needed action. While it is important to do long-term work to address anxiety, and I certainly encourage you to seek that out if you struggle with anxiety or panic attacks, the following are a series of steps that have helped since that terrifying night a few years back.
Step 1: Acknowledge what is happening to you.
You need to say this…out loud if possible. “I am experiencing anxiety.” It is a lot easier to overcome something you can name. Otherwise, your opponent is thin air and has no form. Call it out. Confront it.
Step 2: Challenge your thoughts.
This is where you want to be as honest and accurate as you can. Your emotions are failing you. Don’t rely on them right now. They lie. Stick to what you know. And, what you know is that anxiety is your brain playing a trick on you to convince you that you are not safe, even though you are.
Step 3: Focus on your breathing.
This is where I messed up. I thought breathing would calm me down, but my panic was convincing me that my breathing wasn’t working even when it was. If you can force yourself to inhale and exhale slowly and intentionally, your body will be fine. It’s chemical. Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you suffer from asthma or another respiratory condition. If that is the case, then seek help from a physician. Otherwise, focus on getting oxygen into your body.
Step 4: Ground yourself.
This is a way of giving your brain something else to focus on besides the panic. I like 5-4-3-2-1 grounding. Look around the room you are in and list off 5 things you can see (out loud), 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel/touch, 2 things you can smell, and 1 taste/flavor you like. You may have to repeat this step and that’s ok.
I can only speak from my own experience that these have been helpful. Maybe they will work for you and maybe not. If not, work with a counselor to develop your own battle plan. Don’t get caught up in a panic-induced frenzy like me. At Mind Works Counseling Services in Lubbock, TX, we specialize in helping people overcome their anxiety and in developing plans like this for those times when you need something now.
Learn more about the Anxiety Counseling services that we offer.
Contact us today to schedule an appointment or to let us answer any questions you may have.