I believe in complete freedom from anxiety. One-hundred percent.
Yet, a lot of us have been experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, especially over these last few months of uncertainty. I had so many conversations with friends experiencing these intense attacks lately. Most of them have never really learned how to help their body and mind calm down in those moments, and they think they are the only ones going through it.
Trust me, if you are experiencing anxiety or panic, you are not alone in this, and you don’t have to be lost in it either.
In this blog post I want to give you some practical help in how to deal with anxiety and panic attacks. I have both experienced these attacks in various forms myself and have walked through them with others.
There is hope, and there is freedom.
For those moments, when your brain is struggling to access that truth though, here is some practical help.
A BIT ABOUT MY JOURNEY
Growing up I experienced a lot of anxiety. That looked different in different seasons, but reached its peak when I was 12. I had such intense school anxiety, that I was unable to attend school for a while. My mum would get me to at least try, but I would call her half way through my way to school, panicking and crying, asking her to please come pick me up. We tried different things, from contacting Christian help centres to seeing a naturopath lady that told me to carry a card that said ‘Mother Mary’ always. It was a bit weird. Anyway, I had to learn a lot about how to deal with anxiety myself, and felt very overwhelmed and confused most of this journey. I ended up dealing with my anxiety by emotionally dissociating myself from it, which was a bit like putting a lid on a jar… until the inside exploded and I found myself having panic attacks that I didn’t know how to handle at all.
Even though anxiety or panic might not necessarily be feelings that my family had much experience with or understood, my mum was always the best at holding me when I felt overwhelmed. Maybe she didn’t know what to do either, but having her with me in some of those moments, patiently sitting with me and caring for me, made all the difference.
I am not a psychologist, so I can only share what I have experienced and learned through the years. Learning how to cope with emotional distress does not mean your freedom isn’t real. If you are experiencing anxious thoughts or panic, you are just as much of a good Christian or good person as anyone else.
HOW TO DEAL WITH ANXIETY
Our brains are pretty clever. They trigger certain hormones so we can enjoy happy moments, sadness when we have to slow down and grieve a loved one, and fear to protect us from danger. Our amygdala, the part of our brain that is essential to our ability to feel and perceive emotions, was created to keep us safe. If you come across a snake, your immediate response is to jump away or to freeze, before you can even think about the fact that there is a snake on the ground. Feeling fright in that moment is what keeps you safe. When we experience anxiety, for some reason, our brain perceives threat, often in everyday situations that are not dangerous rationally. Understanding that your mind and heart are really just looking for safety, and are trying to help you, is so important. There is nothing wrong with you for experiencing anxiety, but if your brain is perceiving threat in safe situations, there is an invitation to deeper freedom. Often, breakthrough lies in finding the root of your current experience, so that your heart can heal where it felt unsafe in the first place. And then it might take some time for your brain to rewire, and identify safe situations as safe. If you have been struggling with anxiety for a while, I really want to encourage you to invite someone else into this process of healing your heart and brain. Invite someone to help you find truth, and walk with you when it is hard.
Anxiety is not a life sentence. You experiencing it today doesn’t mean you have to experience it tomorrow. Freedom is so real.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.1 John 4:18
I think that we develop anxious thought patterns, when a part of us didn’t receive the love and care it needed. In my journey, I saw that every time I let God into a painful memory, and let him truly love me in my pain, any anxiety attached to it was gone.
WHEN EXPERIENCING A PANIC ATTACK
What exactly is a panic attack?
Panic attacks begin suddenly and involve overwhelming fear, that triggers intense physical symptoms, such as: Increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, sweating, nausea, dizziness or lightheadedness, the thought that you are dying, ‘going mad’ or losing control, feeling choked, trembling or shaking, losing a sense of reality… It can come in various forms, and it is not a fun time.
So what do you do when you have a panic attack?
If you experience a panic attack, don’t panic.
Ahhm, yes I did say that. Sounds like the worst joke, but again, when you feel panic rising, your body is responding in a way that was designed to keep you safe from danger. So don’t get angry or frustrated with yourself. It’s okay, you can get through this.
1) Breathe. Slowly. When feelings of anxiety rise up, our breathing may become more shallow and restricted, which puts our brain into survival mode and disables us from thinking rationally. The best thing you can do when experiencing panic is focusing on breathing in deeply and slowly. By doing so, you allow your nervous system to calm down.
2) Ground yourself. Anxiety happens in our minds, and it disconnects us from reality.
There is two ways of grounding that I find very helpful.
For the first one, you connect yourself with the reality of your senses. So you want to ask yourself: What can my body touch, smell, hear and see? Try massaging your hands, smelling a perfume you love, or listing all the yellow things you can see in your room.
For the second one, you reconnect with the reality of time and space. This one is especially helpful when you feel unsafe or have a flashback to an anxiety inducing memory. You can ask yourself these questions: Where am I? Who am I with? What year is it? This can be very useful in disconnecting from a memory, and reminding your brain that right now, you are safe.
3) If your attack is due to sensory overload, find a quiet place where you can be by yourself, preferably in the dark. A bathroom might be the best option if you are out.
4) Find things that calm you down. That can be a playlist, a quote, a bible verse, essential oil, a photo of a loved one or pet, an encouraging message from a friend etc. Find the things that can bring you peace in any situation, and have them ready for when you need them.
5) Find someone to walk through this with you. Walking through anxiety or panic attacks by yourself is incredibly hard. I believe we were made to be family, and to journey through life with others, but especially when it comes to going through hard times and moments; we need one another. If you tried opening up to someone and experienced anything else but love and support, I am deeply sorry. If you went through this all by yourself because you felt shame, I am really sorry too. There is space for you and what you experience. You are not a burden. We are here to be family and walk with you.
If you need help, reach out to a trusted friend, a pastor, a doctor… There is hotlines that you can call when you feel overwhelmed (like beyondblue or lifeline) and if you are unsure if your symptoms are medical, call 000.
HOW TO HELP SOMEONE ELSE EXPERIENCING A PANIC ATTACK:
It is scary being with someone who is experiencing something that they don’t have control over, especially when we feel like we can’t help them. So here is a few tips on how to help someone in the middle of a panic attack, or even before it starts.
When someone is coming to you with their anxious thoughts, listen, and validate their feelings. Even if their feelings don’t make sense to you, they are very real for the person experiencing them. Tell them it’s okay to feel this way, and encourage them in who they are and their ability to handle this situation. When we are stuck in an intense emotion, our brain recalls every single time we felt a similar emotion. So help them see that this feeling is not their world, but that they are loved and safe with you in sharing.
If you notice the anxiety taking over, and they show some of the panic attack symptoms I listed above, keep calm.
The last thing they need now is someone to tell them to ‘calm down’ or to be told that their reaction is inappropriate. Don’t leave them because you feel inadequate to help them. If it is too much for you, find someone else to help.
Sit with them. Ask them if they are okay with you putting your hand on their shoulder, giving them a hug, or holding their hand. Remember that connecting them to their sense of touch can help them to ground themselves. But also keep in mind, that not everyone feels comfortable with that, especially in such an intense situation, so always ask first.
Help them breathe slowly and deeply. You might want to show them how to, by doing it yourself. When they are in the middle of a panic attack, don’t ask questions about the thing that might have triggered the attack. Help them reconnect with reality. You can use the techniques we learned before to do so.
If you have never experienced a panic attack before, it can be difficult to use this theory in real life. So here is a little example of how I would react if one of my girl friends was having a panic attack:
Let’s say, she is sitting on the floor, crying. I don’t know what is going on, but I can see that she is in a lot of distress. I sit down next to her and ask her what happened. She says she doesn’t know, but she feels incredibly overwhelmed. She starts rambling and her breathing intensifies. Only a moment later she starts panicking. I look at her and ask her ‘Hey, lovely one, is it okay if I hold your hand?” She nods. I take her hand, hold it firmly, but gently, and say “Okay. I’m here. I’m not letting go until this is over, okay?” I ask her what she needs, if she needs some water, or if she wants to lay down or go somewhere else. She says she doesn’t know. “That’s okay. If anything comes to mind that could help you, let me know.” I notice another wave of emotions coming over her and I’m concerned she might hyperventilate. “Hey, [insert name], can you try breathing a little bit slower? It will help your nervous system to calm down a bit. I can do it with you.” I take in a deep breath through my nose, hold for three seconds, and then breathe out through my mouth. She gives her best to breathe slowly, and I tell her that she is doing very well. I ask her what she did today, and while she thinks about something, I still hold her hand and look her in the eyes. It might be a bit hard for her to think of something, so I ask her a few questions like “When did you get up this morning? Did you go to Uni?…” I give her time and space to think and then I ask her how she is feeling. If she is still struggling, I might use another grounding technique and get her to either share about something else that is going on in her life or I point out something in the room. I ask her if she bought the dress she was talking about the other day, or I point out her earrings and ask her where they are from. It might seem silly to seemingly just change the topic, but in a panic attack you want to help focus on something else. If it feels insensitive, I would tell her what I am doing. I would tell her “Hey, I noticed that this seems a bit overwhelming right now. Let’s try think of something else for a bit, so your heart can have a little break from processing (or, so your nervous system can calm down a little), okay?”
If none of this works and you feel overwhelmed or are concerned, get someone else to help or call 000. If someone is having an intense panic attack, they might need medical care.
When I feel like my friend is calming down, I ask her again if she wants some water or if she needs a hug. Panic attacks are exhausting, so she might want to lay down for a bit or listen to music. Once the attack is over, you can give them space. There is probably a lot of emotions attached to this experience, maybe even shame or disappointment. Make sure they know that they are loved and check with them afterwards.
Your presence can be so important for someone experiencing a panic attack. Don’t be afraid of messing this up. Even if you just sat with them and told them you loved them, it would make all the difference.
PEACE BE WITH YOU
I know, it can be hard. I am very passionate about walking through hard processes with others, and I can’t wait for the day when we see anxiety broken off people’s lives in a moment. I want to leave you with a prayer from Romans 15:13 ->
‘May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’
May love turn any fear into courage. Your freedom is freedom for many.
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