It arrives like a wave: sometimes you can see it cresting over the horizon, and sometimes it knocks you off your feet without warning. Either way, it feels like you’re helpless to stop it.
Those who’ve experienced anxiety attacks dread the feeling of another attack coming, a feeling that can be almost as bad as the attacks themselves. The worst part may be the helplessness—feeling powerless to stop them, forced to endure the attack until it passes. It doesn’t have to be this way. For many, mindfulness is the key to reining in an attack and keeping anxiety under control. With the right methods, a mindful attitude can help you keep calm and focused, even in the face of an oncoming (or ongoing) attack. When used in conjunction with therapy (and in some cases medication), mindfulness can prove a powerful tool for overcoming anxiety attacks. Here are a few techniques that can be used to stay calm when anxiety rears its ugly head.
Meditation can help center and calm you, and provide the focus you might need during an anxiety attack. Download guided meditation sessions and keep them on your phone for when you feel an attack approaching. Even when you’re not in the throes of panic, meditation for anxiety can do a lot of good: studies show that mindful meditation can have a positive influence on those dealing with anxiety issues. [Editor’s Note: as someone who suffers from Panic Disorder, I find Headspace’s SOS single to be useful when I feel an attack coming on.]
Racing thoughts can send us into a tailspin, whether it’s worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, or replaying past events. Instead of letting your mind spin out in these directions, turn your focus to the present. Remind yourself that you are safe. Think about what your body is doing, the sounds around you, and anything else that can anchor you to the moment. Stating your name, where you are, your address, and other mundane facts can all work as anchors. Reminding yourself to be present and checking in with your breath and body can slow frantic thoughts and bring you back to the moment.
This might seem obvious but as anyone trapped in an anxiety attack knows, breathing isn’t always easy in that moment. Focus on each breath; take your time, and count a few moments for each inhalation and exhalation. Be present in your body, noticing the physical reactions that occur as you breathe. Quiet the thoughts that may disrupt your focus; return to count the paces of each breath, keeping them deliberate and even.
If you’re able to, go for a short walk in a familiar place—either around the room or around the block. While walking, see if you can quiet your thoughts and feelings of panic. Turn your attention to the steps you take, and try to make them even and deliberate, and notice how your body moves. Your thoughts may quiet as you focus on the simple activity of walking.
Getting outside can really help. If you could use a walk around the block, try this.
Your phone is probably loaded with songs (if it’s not, make sure to throw some on there). Find something with a soothing melody, ideally instrumental—you can even construct a playlist just for when you’re dealing with anxiety. Focus on how the song makes you feel, the beats and rhythm, and how the instruments blend together—soon you may find yourself feeling more relaxed and in control of your anxiety.
Sometimes it seems nothing can stop an attack, no matter how hard we try. The struggle to regain control can actually make things worse, exacerbating a panic over a loss of control. Take another deep breath and stop berating yourself. It’s alright to have moments of stress and panic—it’s part of being human. Tearing yourself apart will only make you feel guilty on top of everything else. Accept that, in this moment, you are having a tough time, as do all people at some point. It’s important that you don’t turn this into a punishment; instead, focus on what you can learn from this particular attack. By looking to your anxiety as a learning experience, you may lessen its power to overwhelm you.