When you tell someone that you are depressed, feeling anxious and panicking, you are more likely to hear ‘everything’s going to be okay’, ‘stop being overdramatic’, or ‘you’re just overthinking’. In short, mental health is always disregarded. Most people don’t understand what it’s like to suffer from this demon, and those that do know how horrifying it really is.
I want to be blunt and direct about this topic. People with anxiety and panic disorders are not crazy, but these matters should be considered more seriously. These are incomparable to being overdramatic or attention seeking.
In this article, I will tell you about my own experiences with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, and how I learnt to deal with it. Also, I want to open people’s eyes about mental health issues, and give them a better understanding about it.
Another reason why I decided to write about panic attacks and anxiety disorders is because my mind was trying to take over me again, and writing is one of my ways of coping with it.
As I always say, I have to turn my chaos into blessing, and perhaps you can benefit from it too.
How I developed anxiety and a panic attack disorder
My anxiety attacks all started with issues that were out of my control. It’s just that our minds are capable of tricking us by making us think that we are at a dead end, though the visibility of solutions is crystal clear.
As I’m writing this, next to me is my passport with an expired visa. My visa expired months ago and that means, I have been living illegally in this country. I’m an illegal alien. Sounds cool and terrifying at the same time.
Two repatriation flights have been cancelled, and I still have no way of returning to my home country due to lockdowns and the ever evolving situation of COVID. So I’m waiting indefinitely to hear back from my embassy, hoping for some good news.
I quit my job in the capital city in December last year, and moved with my partner to the coastal part of the country. We decided not to work until March because we thought we deserved a break after working for two years. With this, we had our business visas extended through an agent in February since we didn’t have sponsors.
This is pretty normal here in Vietnam. Over fifty percent of the expats here have business visas, and we never had problems until just recently. The rules changed without warning, and everything was thrown into the air.
We started working again in March. Everything was fine but the energy started shifting when we got an announcement of another lockdown in the first week of May.
We were in a different city for a holiday that time. We were waiting for our bus back home and the driver refused to let us on the bus without telling us why. By that time, I already felt that something weird was going on.
A few hours later, we got a message telling us that classes will be suspended until further notice due to another spike of COVID-19 cases. As an English teacher, everything was put on ice.
The next day, we were able to catch a bus back home. When we got back, it felt so different. Stores were closed, the beach was closed, too, and the streets were so empty. There was a dystopian vibe that felt so eerie, and the energy was really negative.
Days like this continued and for some reason, I started feeling bored and sad. What made it worst was the message from the company we were working for saying that they couldn’t pay our salaries due to the pandemic. We live in a no work, no pay life here and our salaries are on hold. I started to worry a little bit as I ran out of money, and my salary never came.
Staying calm worked until I heard back from the legal agent regarding my visa. He told me that the immigration stopped issuing or extending visas to foreigners but didn’t give an explanation why. That time, I started to worry intensely. Never in my life I thought I’d be an illegal alien. I imagined myself being deported, being interrogated by police officers, being put in a cell for violating the law, and that was the commencement of my nightmare.
What happens to your body during a panic attack?
Panic attacks happen without warning, and they’re out of our control. It’s like concentrated fear being injected directly into the brain. It’s the tricks of the mind that can jumpstart someone’s body.
I am very familiar with panic attacks since this is not my first time, so I am well aware if my mind is just playing with me or not.
One minute I’m very happy singing and dancing to my favorite tunes, the next thing I know, my heart is pounding like a drum and my brain activity accelerates to a nearly maximum level. A tiny roughness in my throat, a clogged nose and just a shred of meat that got stuck between my teeth can trigger me.
One time, I had a dry mouth due to breathing exercises. I panicked as my mind just kept on telling me that having a dry mouth will kill me. It’s irrational, I know, but the mind doesn’t discern.
- What happens to me before a panic attack? I normally feel tingles from my toes going up to the tips of my hair, accompanied with hot flashes. Then, my stomach stops its activity and causes discomfort. I usually feel nauseous.
- What happens to me during a panic attack? During a panic attack, my heart rate increases and sends a lot of blood to my body, and my muscles go stiff. This feels like a heart attack or a stroke is going to happen soon. My brain speeds up from 1 to 100 miles per hour, and it feels like there’s a riot in my head.
There’s dissonance, plus mixed thoughts and emotions overtake each other, it activates hyperactivity. Then, a blurry vision follows, sometimes it looks like the objects are moving, and I would start to feel like I’m going to faint. My attacks usually don’t last for long. They normally linger for three to five minutes.
- What happens to me after a panic attack? After an attack, my body is always exhausted. It’s like I finished a marathon. My body aches so much, most especially my back, shoulders, and neck. I would feel a little bit dizzy, and my vision stays blurry for about ten to fifteen minutes. The aftermath lasts longer than the attack so I always prepare for this.
What techniques work to calm panic attacks?
Here are some techniques that really work for me. (Disclaimer: Each of us has a different experience and journey with mental health, these may or may not work for you. It’s still important to know what your body tells you).
- Deep breathing. This technique works like magic for me. Whenever I feel my heart throbbing like crazy, I start regulating my breaths. What I normally do is inhale for five seconds, pause for five seconds and exhale for five seconds. Take time to focus on your breathing. By doing this, you will feel your heart start to slowly go back to the normal pace.
- Relax your muscles. It is important to learn how to relax your muscles in this situation. The more stiff your muscles become, the more your panic attacks will be harder to manage. Sometimes, we are unaware of it as there’s a lot going on in our heads. Just be very mindful of muscle tension and what your body is involuntarily doing. While regulating your breathing, just lie down or just be in a very comfortable position and allow yourself to be very heavy. Others can go straight into meditative state, which is great. Meanwhile, some, like me, can’t due to overwhelming thoughts, I usually don’t know which one to process first.
- Listen to music. For me, music is very therapeutic as it stimulates my brain. Some don’t prefer listening to music as lyrics of songs can trigger their anxiety. I had the same feeling, at first, but I was able to continue making use of the benefits of music by listening to those tracks without lyrics, but with a beat that can bring me to a blissful dimension. I recommend listening to something soft, melodic, and relaxing. Classical or soft electronic are always good choices.
- Confess and open up. Some who are suffering from anxiety and panic disorder are subconsciously being drawn to what we call the safe zone. By being consumed by fear during a panic attack, it’s very important to feel safe. In my experiences, confessing to someone I trust really helped me. I was lucky enough to have someone who understands my condition and whom I call my safe zone. By confessing, I was provided what I really needed, such as interpersonal touch and love, without judgment.
- Cry. At first, I wasn’t very expressive of my emotions as fear always consumed me, until I was put in a position where all I could do was cry. That made me realise that crying is good. It’s an effective way to regulate your breathing. Crying is also a way to release and process your emotions. When we are crying, we are letting our emotions out, and, at the same time, we are deep breathing which is very beneficial when you’re suffering from anxiety and panic disorder. Don’t hold back the tears, let them rip and you will start to recover.
- Do moderate exercises. Sometimes, my fear triggers the fight or flight response. When this happens, my mind tells me to move, to flee, so what I do is some moderate exercise, and harness that urge. I used to live in an apartment with a pool, and I remember jumping in and swimming until my breathing is regulated whenever my body was under my mind’s control. I’m thankful for that pool. Without it, I may have jumped from the balcony of our apartment. That’s how intense my attacks were. Also, jogging and walking outside helped me along this journey.
Daily practices to help manage anxiety and panic attacks
(Disclaimer: This is my own journey, and this may not work for you. It is important to check for any allergic reactions or better yet consult with your physician before taking any of the supplements mentioned in this article.
- Yoga. As we all know, yoga is one of the best practices that helps manage stress and anxiety. With yoga, you are inviting mental and physical relaxation. Yoga poses and stretching help you release muscle tension and calm your emotions. Whenever I do yoga, I feel so focused on the present, so my awareness is boosted, and my mind is centered. There are lots of Yoga tutorials available on YouTube, but I highly recommend the ones that last for 30 minutes or more.
- Meditation. It has been proven that meditation lowers levels of anxiety, regulates your heart rate, breathing and brain waves, and activates the relaxation response. When you’re suffering from panic attacks, meditation helps you to connect with your thoughts. And with this, it would be easier to settle into your own mind and have control over it, not the other way around. I normally meditate after yoga, and child’s pose meditation really works for me. If you are new to meditation, this meditation guide can help you get started.
- Be active and get outdoors. Being unproductive affects our mental health even if we aren’t suffering from any mental disturbances. Being active, as simple as going for a 10-minute walk or jogging outside, can change your mood. It diverts you from anything that stresses you. You see people moving, kids playing, and other forms of life like trees, plants, and animals. Seeing people outside makes me appreciate life more and gives me the feeling that I am not alone in this world.
Also, exercising or working out is a form of self-love. It makes you feel good about yourself and boosts your self-esteem. Imagine the impact of doing it every day of your life. You will love standing in front of the mirror as you will see nothing but a beautiful reflection.
- Connect with nature. I always say that nature is the best medicine, but unfortunately, only a few people realise the huge potential of it on the mind. Nature makes me feel so relaxed and safe like home. The sound of the waves crashing on the shore, the smell of the ocean breeze, the movement and sound of wind whistling through the trees, plants and animals on the mountains are a thousand times better than any pharmaceutical drugs.
If you do not have access to the beach or mountain, you can buy some plants or have a pet to lift the nature vibe in your home. I used to live really close to the beach and mountains, but I had lots of plants in my apartment. Watering them and just looking at them relieved my stress tremendously.
- Reading and writing. These two activities help me track the progress of my mental health. I have a journal where I wrote down my emotions and the triggers, the intensity of the attacks, and activities that helped me. I also recorded the duration of my sleep on a daily basis. It was my way of improving my anxiety awareness.
It is important to have a journal so you can read back what worked for you, and what you can continue doing. As you read back over your experiences, you realise that you have been doing great in your journey. There is progress and it makes you feel proud of yourself, knowing that you are improving every day.
Besides my own journal, I have been writing articles to express my feelings and emotions as well. It’s very therapeutic for me, and its power is unfathomable. When I start writing, ending it is quite challenging as ideas just keep overflowing. It makes me forget that I am battling with something dark inside. Here is one of the articles I have written that helped me cope with my anxiety and panic attack disorder: https://symbosity.com/heal-from-domestic-abuse/.
It is also nice to focus on stories of other people instead of your own worries and anxieties. So, the next time you feel anxious, grab a good book or read an article, put it all into perspective, and realise how good you really have it.
- Eat healthy and avoid anti-depressants. Yes, you have read it right. Avoid anti-depressants as much as possible. You don’t want to be dependent to them. I was once dependent on Valium, but it only messed me up so bad. That was years ago and never again. To be honest, I bought a pack of Flutonin after the very intense episode I had over two months ago, but until now, I haven’t taken any. They are still intact, untouched. I’m winning the battle!
Instead of resorting to anti-depressants, I improved my well-being by eating healthy, with the help of supplements such as Multi-vitamins, Vitamin B-complex, Magnesium, and Iron. These supplements are proven and tested to help with anxiety. I’m sticking with a balanced diet, and I also increased my fluid intake through water therapy. Remember, you are what you eat.
- Avoid alcohol, substances, and smoking. Our bad habits only work as a temporary fix. It’s an enjoy-now-suffer-later type of system. For others, alcohol makes them relax, but in my own experience, it triggered my anxiety and caused an intense panic attack. After that attack, I stayed away from drinking as I didn’t want to experience the same thing ever again. It is the same with smoking or any other substances.
- Compliment yourself. Now, let’s talk about how we talk to ourselves. Being complimented by other people is such a magical feeling that can bring us up floating in the sky. But do we really have to depend on other people for compliments?
A personal mantra is very helpful and powerful, not just to those with mental disturbances, but to everyone. Be nice to yourself. You are beautiful. You are one in a million. You deserve peace. Keep telling that to yourself and watch how your mood and energy shift.
- Practice gratitude. This one works like magic, too. Anxiety and panic attacks make us overthink about the future, so being present is a good way to stop our mind from doing it. We have no control over the future, but we can navigate our present.
Look around you. If you have a roof that shelters you, food to eat, access to clean water and clothes to wear, you are one lucky lad. If you don’t feel grateful for the material things you have, be thankful for the people who love you and care for you. And more importantly, be thankful for being alive. You are here for a reason.
It became my habit to write down all the things that I am grateful for everyday of my life. This practice always takes me to deeper realisations, and it always leads to a better understanding of why things are happening.
Sounds like quite a lot, but once you make them your habit, you will never feel like it. Now, what if you aren’t suffering from anxiety and panic disorder? How can you help? Keep reading.
What to do if you are with someone who is suffering from anxiety and panic disorder.
- Don’t judge. If someone tells you they are suffering from either of these mental disturbances, that means THEY TRUST YOU. Despite feeling ashamed about their condition, they picked as much courage as they could muster just to let you know about their battles against their own demons. They expect you to not judge, so be decent enough to not judge them.
- Do not panic. If you happen to be with someone who is having a panic attack, it is very important to stay calm and to not panic, as well. One of the common reasons why someone who is having a panic attack is not vocal about it, is because he/she is scared that the other person might also panic. Just relax and don’t add another layer of fear to it, as things could definitely go wrong, and exacerbate the situation. Be their rock, and help ground them.
- Be the safe zone. If your loved one is telling you that they are panicking, the best thing you could do is to make them feel safe. Hugging and cuddling is my personal favorite. In my own experience, being hugged and cuddled gives me the feeling of home. The feeling of safety. The power of interpersonal touch does not only benefit the person who is trying to escape the darkness of fear, but it also helps lower the stress of the hugger/cuddler. It’s like hitting two birds with one stone.
- Be careful with your choice of words. Words play a very vital role in this situation. Typically, if someone is panicking, our automatic responses are ‘everything’s going to be okay’, ‘just relax’, ‘calm down’. Trust me, these phrases don’t help. The brain of the person suffering from a panic attack is too clouded as he/she was already programmed to feel the opposite. They need words of assurance like ‘I am here for you’, or ‘I am with you’, which also affirms safety and security. If you don’t know what to say, just try to execute rules number one, two, and three.
- Do not assume. Ask questions. To tell you honestly, sometimes, it’s hard for someone who suffers from anxiety and panic disorder to open up about their triggers and requests. They would never want to talk about it because they fear being judged. What you can do is ask the person if he/she wants to talk about it in a calm manner. Ask if they need anything. Initiate the conversation and encourage the person without giving him/her the feeling of being forced. Just talk normally with calm tone of voice. As simple as that.
Help people overcome panic by being the light in their lives
If you’re suffering from any of these mental disturbances, it’s also best to consider this as a journey and not a mental illness. Remember, you are not alone in this battle. A lot of people are also going through the same stage. The only difference is the approach.
I consider myself a spiritual person, so instead of dwelling on the thought of me going crazy, I focus on finding answers to the question ‘Why is this happening?’ Sometimes, some of the traumas that we need to confront get taken for granted, and the universe will always find a way for us to look deeper into it before we can take a step into the bigger picture. I was right when I said, we can only delay the confrontation, but we can never bypass it.
In my case, I had to go through all these as there were lots of hidden insecurities that needed to resurface, so I could face them and heal from them. We just have to listen to what the universe is trying to tell us. This requires a lot of patience, but trust me, the universe is preparing you for something big. There’s always a reason as to why things are happening.
Things have been resolved and everything’s getting better and better for me. I haven’t had any intense attacks lately, and fear doesn’t consume me anymore like how it used to. I get subtle ones, but I have noticed, positive thoughts are much stronger now, and they kick in much quicker.
Looking back to those times where I felt like I was sitting next to my grave makes me smile and gives me the highest audacity to tell the universe ‘Hey, I have survived. What now?’
At this point, I can say, I am better, and I will continue to heal and to always stay mindful. Being present is the greatest lesson I have learned from this journey. Sounds very easy but it could be one of the most difficult things to do when life hits you.
Let’s not be hypocrites here. We consider our future the most important moment, though it isn’t happening yet. We make sure it is going to be a good one, we spend so much time preparing for it, and our present is being ignored and taken for granted.
We are ruining the present by mourning for something that isn’t in our hands yet. It is time to practice going deeper into the present as it is all we have now. I’ll tell you a secret, magic is real, my dear. You can make magic and being present is the only key that can unlock the great magician in you.
This journey is not an easy one, but this is it. This is life. Spiritual or not, we are all human created to exist in this world to experience duality. If there’s happiness, there’s sadness. If there’s love, there’s hate. If there’s prosperity, there’s suffering. And since we were programmed to survive, you will survive despite whatever the universe puts you through. Just keep your trust in her, as well as in yourself.
If you feel the need for professional help, do not be ashamed of seeking for it. Seeking help isn’t an indication of being weak. The most courageous thing an individual can do is to accept the fact that help is needed. You are awesome for knowing how to pick yourself up.
Take you time healing, as long as you want. Be gentle on yourself by not rushing the process, or expecting too much of yourself. Just always remember, never let your mind control you. YOU ARE YOUR MIND AND YOU HAVE THE POWER.