DON’T PANIC! (It’s just an attack!)

June 18, 2008

‘It’s true I had a lot of anxiety. I was afraid of the dark and suspicious of the light.’ ~ Woody Allen

You know the signs. Palpitations, gasping for air, sweaty palms, complete with the sudden feeling of impending doom – and nope, you’ve not been caught in the act by shocked and appalled parents. You’re about to have, or are in the midst of having, a panic attack. The world as you know it has ended. You’re not sure what is about to happen, but you are certain that it is the very worst thing that ever could.

Popping my panic cherry

My first panic attack seemingly came from nowhere. One minute I was lounging on the couch, watching television, the next I was racing around the room, eyes wide open, heart pounding, hyperventilating and convinced I was going to drop dead or the world was going to explode. The episode lasted for two hours, until I was too tired to carry on. The next night, around the same time, I felt lightheaded, started gulping air and went off on one again.

Knowledge is a cold shower

I typed my symptoms into Google and came across a lot of sites relating to anxiety. This was news to me, I had always been pretty confident and level-headed. I was a strong, assertive and intelligent girl damn it! So what was the deal with the panic attacks?

After a week of almost daily attacks I took myself off to the family doctor. He prescribed beta blockers to control the physical aspects of the ”episodes”, helping me to break the daily cycle. I felt reassured just by having the medication in my pocket, the knowledge that I could put a stop to the attack before it started. It didn’t quite work like that though, the attacks came on strong and unexpectedly and by the time I was in the middle of one, I couldn’t take my finger off my pulse long enough to take the medication. Back to the docs. This time he said a very simple but profound statement to me,

”Think about what’s going on in your life. Happy people don’t have panic attacks.”

Woooah. I wasn’t happy? Okaaay. What was the problem then? Well, in hindsight, I can tell you that losing people close to me and dealing with it by going out and getting drunk and not looking after myself were definete contributing factors. At the time though, I was grieving, generally hungover and wired on sugar so I wasn’t in the best state to ponder on my mental health.

It was a long time before I got to the stage where I could talk about what was going on. When I did…..oh god, what a ****ing relief! I started to address the problem in different ways and I’m going to share them with you, hopefully it’ll take you less time (and misspent energy) to get to the place I’m at now.

If I could talk I’d tell you…

Every year, more people are being diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder and/or depression. There is a high probability that someone you know has also experienced them (and has also kept quiet because of embarrassment or fear). By speaking up, you are opening yourself up to help – this is not a failing, it’s the biggest step you’ll take in overcoming your anxiety.

We tend to be our own worst enemy when it comes to keeping things to ourselves. I could bring on a panic attack by worrying that I might have one in front of my friends and be forever known as the wierdo woman-mental. So we made a joke about it. I told my closest friends what made me feel better during an attack and they promised not to threaten me with straight jackets. I found that the more I talked about it in a lighthearted way, the less significant and threatening it became. Aswell as bringing relief, talking about it strengthened my friendships, I realised that the gobby sarcasm was also a mask for my vunerability. Letting my guard down (or having it totally blown off it’s hinges by an impromptu panic attack) allowed people to get closer to me. Not a bad thing as it turns out.

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour…

How about what not to do? For a while I decided the best thing to do would be to drink. It was a logical step. I would start feeling anxious around 6pm, then focus on the feeling until I went into one by about 7. I could have set an alarm for the time I would have an attack (instead of beeping, it would be the sound of me hyperventilating. That would stop you hitting the snooze button, eh?). Sooooo, instead of doing that, I went to the pub. The second drink normally got me out of the danger zone. After that I was relaxed enough to get nicely tipsy and not have to worry about panic attacks.

Unfortunately, low blood sugar levels and dehydration can also get the body all shook up. So, instead of having them in the evening, I started the day off with them instead. Lovely. I found a way around it though, with the old ‘prevention is better than cure’ remedy…..drink cola. Yep, this was short lived also.

Goodbye Sugar Girl

Well, I can’t say I immediately gave up sugar without a second thought…this one’s taken years, but these days I have it as a treat. I recently had a month without sugar-no honey, no spoons in tea/coffee, no dried fruit or concentrated fruit juice, just naturally occurring sugars in whole fruits and vegetables-and I noticed the difference within the first week. I had more energy, I wasn’t feeling anxious mid-afternoon because of hunger and as a bonus, I lost the extra weight I put on when I was satisfying daily cravings. By making more conscious eating choices and planning ahead, I’ve put a stop to sugar crashes that can imitate panic attacks. You don’t need a special eating plan, just know the basics and fit them into your daily routine. Eating every couple of hours will keep your sugar levels steady and everything in balance. For an idea of when and how often, it roughly works out as breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner. Make sure you have good sources of protein at the same time as complex carbohydrates and have a look at low GL recipes for examples of balanced meals.

Where is my mind?

So we know what we can do to empower ourselves, but what about external life events that are beyond our control? Our upbringing, bereavement, abandonment, life transitions such as becoming a parent, moving home, being promoted…all contribute to our ability to deal with stress and can quickly overwhelm us. Talking to a trained counselor or a professional who specialises in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy could be the answer. Our mindset is influenced from the start by genetics and our family environment, it’s then enhanced by the people we surround ourselves with. Our self-belief, thought patterns and values are so deeply ingrained it can take years for us to see that they might not be serving us too well in our adult years. Speaking to someone who can be objective helps to put your feelings into context. Analysing your behaviour patterns helps you to approach similar problems with a different outlook and achieve a different (in this case, a positive) outcome.

Witness the fitness

The old faithful….exercise! Yeah I know, I struggle with this, I tend to go in cycles of all or nothing-something for another blog post. Exercise helps to manage anxiety by releasing the excess adrenalin that we store up as we prepare to fight our dragons. It also builds up our self-esteem, encouraging a more positive belief system, helping us to manage our stress better and improve our cardiovascular system, as well as helping us to control our breathing-a helpful skill to have when we are dealing with hyperventilating. Exercise doesn’t have to be all sweaty and competitive, yoga is great for calming the mind, controlling breathing and helping us to block outside triggers and negative anticipation, by concentrating our minds on the present.

Above all, don’t aid and abet panic attacks by keeping quiet, they are isolating enough!

Please feel free to use the comment space as a forum, adding your personal experiences and ways of dealing with panic attacks.

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April 4, 2008

How to lose control and find your plot

February 6, 2008
Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say. ~Sharon O’Brien

A few months ago I read “The Artist’s Way”, by Julia Cameron. There’s a lot of exercises in there to get the creative juices flowing and also plenty of opportunity for you to examine your lifestyle, behaviour, hopes and fears. One life-changing habit I have adopted from that book is the morning pages.

The morning pages are to be written every day as soon as you wake up. The reason is that our brains haven’t yet had the chance to digest all the events of our day and clutter our thinking. The book suggests we free-write for a minimum of three pages, other people suggest setting a timer for ten minutes and writing until the alarm goes off. How you decide to treat them is entirely your choice, as long as they’re done, but here I will tell you my routine and why it works for me, just so you can get an idea.

* I now set my alarm half an hour earlier than I used to, then I make a cup of fresh coffee and go and sit on the couch with my journal and pen. I don’t put on music or TV because this is top quality me-time and it sets me up for the day. Look here for other suggestions on morning rituals.

* I write freely for three pages without hesitation. I tried using the timer technique, but the silence and empty pages was daunting to begin with and I preferred to see how far I had come and how much further I needed to go. I don’t think I would have that problem now, but in the beginning it is important to do what feels right for you in order to successfully form the habit.

* Free-writing can be very difficult to begin with at first, but have no fear, it gets easier! If you are experiencing a block, why not write about why you think you’re having trouble writing? It might help to get to the root of the problem and at the very least, it will make you put ink on the paper.

* Don’t worry if you notice a lot of negative thought at first. Once this is on the page and you start to see positive consequences to your journalling, the balance will shift. I do not apologise for anything I write in my journal, rather it is better to be worked through in writing and looked at objectively than to mentally carry it around or act on the thoughts in a negative way.

* Reflect! Choose a day each week to go over the previous week’s pages. I prefer Sunday as it’s the end of the week and I can put a full stop to some issues and make a plan of action for the week ahead. Choose two different coloured highlighting pens and highlight insights and actions for the past week. This helps you realise thought patterns, underlying issues and empowering actions. It’s always encouraging to see how productive you have been in seven days and it’s a great foundation for a positive week ahead!

It took me a few weeks to really get into the flow of it and I have some prompts for getting over this hurdle:

  1. Write about a book you’re reading. How do you feel about it? Why do you like/dislike it?
  2. Write about a current problem you have, maybe with a colleague, partner or family member. What is the problem? Can you see the other person’s point of view? What steps need to be taken to resolve this?
  3. What have you always wanted to do but never got round to? What’s stopping you?
  4. Describe your dream from the night before, or your last vivid dream. What was symbolic about it?
  5. What are you most looking forward to about your day?
  6. What are you grateful for this morning? I would say this is the most important prompt of all. By focussing on all that we love about our life, we are creating a positive mindset for the day ahead and those niggly problems become even more trivial than usual.

Since I started my morning pages I have noticed that I am procrastinating less, as that is an issue I am addressing in my journal. I am also practising my writing techniques, always a positive thing! I would also credit it with improving my relationships, as I resolve petty issues with myself in the morning instead of allowing them to build up with others.

I’m interested in how many of you are already completing your morning pages and how they are helping you. Please leave a comment and share your experiences!

    Clear vision

    January 31, 2008

    Very early, I knew that the only object in life was to grow. — Margaret Fuller

    Approaching 30 has, perhaps inevitably, made me want to focus more on the direction I am going in.

    I’ve spent my 20s like a lot of people I know: partying, experimenting and wondering what I’ll be when I “grow up”. Nowadays I’m appreciating that it’s a process and I feel I am ready to commit myself to a journey of living a life of awareness, meaning and fulfillment. I’m excited about my new outlook and have spent the last few months reading blogs by others that have documented their own journey towards a more meaningful and productive life, such as: Zen Habits, The Happiness Project, I Will Change Your Life, Ririan Project among others. These blogs have informed and inspired me for a while now, aswell as made me ask questions about my own thoughts and behaviours – as all personal growth materials should! Read the rest of this entry »