Learning to Cope with Panic Attacks

Last Saturday my husband Dean and I took a drive to visit a grocery store 22 miles from our home. I know that may sound crazy to drive so far for groceries, yet grocery shopping has become one of our biggest outlets for external stimulation during COVID-19. Dean has a pre-existing condition, so we have been extremely cautious during this pandemic, even as the restrictions have been lifted. Until we both have been vaccinated our joys will centime to come from simple pleasures. For the last year one of our vehicles for fun has been exploring quality grocery stores looking for good produce for the plant-based meals that have become the foundation of our diets.

It was a lovely day, yet it was difficult for me to relax and fully enjoy the ride. I was uptight. My body and mind were feeling uncomfortably anxious.

My Introduction to Panic Attacks

I was 30 when I experienced my first panic attack. I had recently moved to Boston from my native San Francisco. It was my second coast to coast move across the United States as an adult. I had no family or personal friends there yet. I was simply there for the job.

The panic attack hit me on a Sunday afternoon in early winter. I had set out to explore on a Greater Boston freeway that I had not yet become familiar with. There was no snow on the roads. It was just cold.

I do not recall feeling nervous about the drive. Having a job that required a fair amount of business travel, I had grown comfortable being in unfamiliar territory on my own. Yet suddenly, a sensation came over me that I’d never felt before. My heart began pounding, my hands were sweating, and a sense of fear overtook me. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was afraid that I was going to die. I exited the freeway as soon as I could and slowly inched my way back to my suburban Boston apartment by way of the back roads. I felt defeated but grateful to have endured a scary, unexpected time.

I have experienced these kinds of episodes on and off over the last three decades. I have gone years without a panic attack and have had years that were fraught with episodes. I have even had a handful that have landed me in a hospital emergency unit.

Solutions for Coping

Last weekend when I shared with Dean the anxiety that I was struggling with on the ride back home, he suggested that I consider starting to run again to release some of my anxiety. I had been a runner for 25 years until lower back pain and hamstring injuries led me to end that chapter three years ago. I would do the elliptical machine at the gym until COVID-19 led me to cancel my gym membership. I have been riding a spin bike at home six mornings a week for 45 minutes, but I will be the first to admit that I had not been pushing myself full throttle to get my heart rate truly pumping.

The day after the grocery store trip anxiety I laced up an old pair of running shoes and headed towards the high school track a mile away on foot. Once I got there, I discovered that the track was not open to the public, so I cautiously jogged back home on the sidewalk to protect my lower back.

I had forgotten what it felt like to be truly winded. My heart rate had not been elevated to that level in a year. When I got home, I felt happy and relaxed. The air of depression that had been hanging over me had lifted. That experience paved the way for me to learn how to better manage anxiety. Since then, I’ve been making a point to get my heart rate pumping on my spin bike as I await the delivery of new running shoes that will support my back.

As someone who believes that our thoughts are the driving force behind our experiences, my issue with anxiety has been a challenge. I know from too many first-hand experiences how difficult it can be to stop the avalanche of fear during a panic attack to calmly remind yourself that everything is going to be okay.

6 Tips for Anxiety Management

I want to stress that I am not a mental health professional nor have I had any formal training in anxiety. I am simply a patient who wants to share concepts that I’ve been practicing that have helped me to better manage the impact of unwelcome panic attacks.

  1. Identify that what you are experiencing is a panic attack which you have experienced and lived through before
  2. Acknowledge your power to control the sensations through deep breathing in the moments
  3. Keep telling yourself that you are going to be okay
  4. Minimize your caffeine intake
  5. Keep your body hydrated
  6. Identify a spiritual or human connection that you can call upon during times of need to calm your fears

Why I Share About Anxiety

I write about my experiences with anxiety because I want to help others who deal with it to recognize that you’re not alone. None of us is perfect in all ways. I like to think there’s a reason why I’m challenged with anxiety that is an asset to my greater being. And I think the same is true for you.

Please reach out if it this topic speaks to you. I would love to learn from you.

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