How to Pull Yourself out of Severe Anxiety / Panic Attacks

First of all, to anyone writing articles saying “I cured my anxiety forever in one night USING THIS SIMPLE TOOL.” Fuck you. Do you know how many times I’ve been lost in that rabbit hole? Or how much money I’ve spent on homeopathic “cures” for anxiety? Hoping that I simply hadn’t found the right potion to heal my mental maelstrom. Fuck you. I’m not spending $50 on ancient Himalayan tar…again.

Homeopathic remedies do wonders for nervousness, not anxiety (which are two very different things). I apologize if I am coming off as irritated or angry, I guess it’s because I am irritated and angry.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news; there is no immediate cure for anxiety. To cure something means that it is gone for good. Individuals who have dealt with anxiety for months or years at a time know that every day is a fight. A fight for a moment of peace and the only way to alleviate that pressure in a more permanent sense is to constantly be pushing back against the comforts around you. But, there is a way to dampen the intensity of a panic attack significantly.

For those of you that have experienced a panic attack, you know how terrifying it is. You know what it is like to be afraid of your mind and body. I learned of a proven mental tactic to be able to pull yourself out of severe anxiety or even a panic attack and have created my own twist on it. This approach works because it is backed by simple science.

Symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders are thought to result in part from disruption in the balance of activity in the emotional centers of the brain rather than in the higher cognitive centers. The emotional center is the “caveman/cavewoman” parts of your brain. Anxiety, in a way oversimplified explanation, is your body’s response to stress. It’s the “fight or flight” mode we all learned about in biology, which helped to keep us alive by heightening our senses and reaction times when facing a potential danger.

Brain diagrams 1-01Let’s break down this diagram. That thing that sort of looks like a little alien with a tail is the Amygdala and hippocampus, think of this as your primitive brain. As a part of the limbic system, this is your emotional core and is also generally agreed upon to be the culprit of many anxiety related disorders. The limbic system hangs out in your temporal lobe, which is responsible for memories and processing sensory stimuli.

Ruby Wax is an actress, mental health campaigner, lecturer, and author. She gave a TED talk called “what’s so funny about mental illness?” and she summed up this evolutionary mishap brilliantly:

 “I’ll show you where there might be a few glitches in evolution…When we were ancient man millions of years ago, and we suddenly felt threatened by a predator…we would fill up with our own adrenaline and our own cortisol, and then we’d kill or be killed, we’d eat or we’d be eaten, and then suddenly we’d de-fuel, and we’d go back to normal.

So the problem is, nowadays, with modern man when we feel in danger, we still fill up with our own chemical but because we can’t kill traffic wardens, or eat estate agents, the fuel just stays in our body over and over, so we’re in a constant state of alarm, a constant state.”

 

Brain diagram 2-02Now, this is your frontal lobe, which is the higher cognitive center of your brain, and the most phylogenetically recent brain region. Phylogenetic is just a fancy word for the newest part of the brain evolutionarily. This is your problem-solving core. The frontal lobe is also responsible for simple arithmetic. By the way, I am way oversimplifying this; the brain is still largely misunderstood.

Okay, enough learnin’ for one day. Here is why I have told you all of this:

When you are experiencing intense anxiety or a panic attack, the amygdala and hippocampus are firing like the fourth of July in Mississippi. In order to get out of it, you basically want to distract your brain.

So you need to jumpstart your frontal lobe to take some energy out of your primitive brain. There are a few ways you can do this:

  1. Math – By doing simple arithmetic you change where the neurons are firing in your brain. Avoid doing multiplication tables because those lie in the memory portion of our brains, which isn’t the higher cognitive function of the frontal lobe that you need to be in. So grab some numbers and multiply, add, and divide the shit out of them
  2. Music – If you are familiar with music, or even better play an instrument, you are probably familiar with tempo. Dissect the music by calculating the BPM (beats per minute). Here’s how to do that:
    1. Tap your foot or fingers to the beat. If you’re having trouble with this try to isolate the drums
    2. Look at a clock that displays the seconds
    3. Take the number of beats you counted and multiply by 4 to get the number of beats in a whole minute

I generally find the music strategy more enjoyable, but I actually found a strategy last night that worked better for me than these other two. But please try all of these techniques because you and I are different people.

Poetry

I have always loved to write and recently I rediscovered my love for poetry. On Wednesday of this week I was feeling wrought with anxiety. My chest hurt, my legs and arms had fallen asleep and I had that all too familiar feeling of imminent doom. So I grabbed a pen and paper and started writing poetry.

I have written in the past when I felt anxious, but it was always written in a spew of consciousness. It helped a bit, but I also had a tendency to play into some “what if” thought patterns and writing it down made them seem even a bit scarier. So instead I wrote poetry, and it worked like a charm. By focusing on the number of syllables in each line and on the rhyme scheme I was able to view the poem I was writing as a problem I was trying to solve. Except instead of the problem containing numbers and integers, they contained words and emotions.

I’m not entirely sure why this worked so well. Perhaps it’s because I genuinely enjoy writing poetry and so I was able to be totally engrossed by the task at hand, which successfully distracted my primal brain from the false sense of emergency. Regardless, if you also experience severe anxiety or panic attacks, I hope you’re able to find some comfort in these techniques.

 

Much love & many adventures,

Wolfe