Anxiety. I’ve lived with it for over thirty years now, only having a name for the debilitating feelings of apprehension, fear, and doom for about the last ten.
Anxiety has been the source of several addictions and disorders for me, from alcohol to sex to disordered eating. It has led to the fall of many relationships and opportunities, be they friendship, love, professional, or educational. I couldn’t go to social events without immediately doing several shots as soon as I walked into the party — or if not, doing so in the car or at home, “pre-gaming” with my roommates who were equally dependent at the time. I’ve woken up in the bed of strangers because anxiety twisted and gripped me so tightly that I could not bear to process those feelings another sober moment, nor could I cope with the twisting fear, pain, and loneliness that sobriety brought me in with the wee hours of the morning, all by myself.
Now at the age of thirty-three, I can look back upon mistakes and self-soothing behaviors with compassion for my younger, broken self as I learn to create better coping strategies and allow space for previous mistakes. I now recognize that many of those choices were made because of anxiety.
If I had been equipped with strategies to tackle anxiety then and with the self-awareness that I have now, life would have looked a lot different for me. There would be a lot more room for mistakes instead of constantly dodging icebergs or having to jump ship at the very last minute.
Be it breathing, physical “crossover” exercises, mindfulness, the shock of ice, or a “Responsibili-Buddy”-like anxiety pal, these techniques have helped me get my life under control and lean less heavily on my helper, Ativan.
Having these tools means that my world does not end even if my prescription does, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. I hope these help you, too.
1. Box Breathing
Box breathing is my go-to when I feel my pulse quicken and my breaths shorten. This video suggests breathing in and holding for a mere two seconds. My personal recommendation is to start with three seconds. Once you have done that cycle, up it to four. Do cyclical box breathing in bursts of four for four minutes.
As you slow your breathing down and focus on something else, you slow your heart which slows the rest of your fight-or-flight functions.
If you need to do this in the middle of a social function and are worried about losing face, just grab your phone and go into a corner or outside and pretend like you’re making a phone call and need to excuse yourself, or slip into the restroom for a moment — though deep breaths in a busy bathroom are not always the most pleasant thing.
2. Crossover Exercises
My mother taught EH students and children with autism for nearly twenty years in a public school system in Florida. She recognized that many of the times when a child is acting out, they are doing so out of fear and anxiety and their fight or flight instincts take over, making them volatile.
One coping technique that she learned and taught her students was “crossover” exercises. The logic behind a “crossover” is that it engages both sides of your brain and forces you to focus on something else. The first step is to sit up straight and put your legs out in front of you. Then, cross your ankles. Hold your arms out in your lap and cross your wrists over one another. Then, grab your hands and clasp them. Close your eyes and mouth. Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth.
Now, take two minutes worth of deep breaths — in through the nose, out through the mouth.
It feels goofy, but it physically engages you in such a way that it forces other parts of your body out of their panic mode.
For me, one of the most effective ways to draw myself out of a panic attack — even tearfully and gasping for air — is through ice. It can simply be one cube of it in the palm of my hand. Holding it and focusing on its tangible cold and the feeling of it melting in my hands is one of the easiest anchors that I have in life.
At times when I am incredibly upset, my fiancee will run and grab a piece of ice from the refrigerator and — after asking my consent first — put it on my pulse, gently gliding it up and down my veins or on my forehead or neck if it’s hot outside. It draws me out of my state of panic immediately. Sometimes a cold washcloth on my neck or forehead works, too. Either way, the coldness is a foil to my rising internal temperature as anxiety overtakes my senses.
4. Take Off Your Clothes
If you are at home and having a panic attack, strip off any binding clothing.
Are you wearing a bra? Fuck that, first thing to come off.
Tight leggings? Those have to go, too.
Anything with a waistband or that otherwise restricts, like the top of your socks. Get naked, sit in front of a fan, or lie down for a bit. Do your breathing exercises with little to nothing touching your skin except for whatever you are sitting, lying, or standing on.
For what it’s worth, I’ve locked the door and done this at parties when my anxiety was so bad it made me feel like I was going to faint. I’ve also sat in the cold, porcelain tub to anchor myself. Just make sure that you trust the lock on the door.
5. Wash It Off
While I wouldn’t slip into someone else’s shower at a social gathering, resetting your body by taking one at home is super effective for me. It doesn’t matter what temperature, if I can douse my body in water, it’s like a baptism. I come out calm and renewed.
When I'm in the shower, I can just envision the rushing thoughts going down the drain. I can stay in there until the hot water runs out or until the thoughts slow down, whichever happens first. I sing one of my shower songs if I can. Yes, I’m an adult who has a repertoire of shower songs, and no… none of them remind me to wash my belly button or clean behind my ears. These are songs that I belt out when no one is there to listen or I just don’t give a fuck. “Wash It Off” by Magic Mouth, a now defunct band from Portland, is one of those go-to songs, as is “Try Some, Buy Some” by Ronnie Spector. Sing one of yours or borrow one of mine.
When I get out, I towel off, put my leave in conditioner on, toss a fuzzy rob on, and if I can, I do my skin regimen which is calming in and of itself — or I slide into my cozy bed to pile on the blankets and take a nap. If I can sleep it off, it allows me to hit the reset button. Taking a shower loosens my body and slows my thoughts enough to make that happen.
Anxiety is serious business, but it doesn’t have to rule your life. Once you learn about it, you can take more control.
If you feel like you are out of control and need help, that is okay, too. Please reach out to someone you love or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in order to reach a skilled, compassionate person who wants to help you.