Anxiety attacks can come on suddenly, with little warning, so when they do it is important to know the best way to respond – whether it is for yourself or for someone who is near to you.
Melbourne-based psychotherapist Pauline McKinnon knows this all too well, having suffered from the condition herself. “Anxiety can be debilitating. I suffered from anxiety for many years before discovering effective relief and often symptoms would come on without any warning.”
“I had my first episode of anxiety many years ago when I was driving in traffic with my young kids in the car. At the time, within the terror, I thought I was going to die. Thankfully, I managed to pull into some shops and go into a store where people helped me; but that was years ago and anxiety and panic attacks were not really something people knew about back then.”
“Among a range of unpleasant feelings, I could sometimes suffer from an odd feeling of unreality, where I felt like I was there, but weirdly not. And then, my head would start pounding, my chest would tighten, I’d feel a shortness of breath and, typically, an overwhelming sense of fear.”
“Many people think stress and anxiety are the same thing. They are very different. Stress occurs in response to a situation and normally if you remove or resolve the situation, the stress diminishes. Anxiety can certainly accompany the stress response, but anxiety on the other hand can happen for no known reason,”
“Thankfully today, there is greater awareness, but more needs to be done to.”
Body+soul asked Pauline for some practical ways you can help yourself – or someone else who may be experiencing an anxiety attack. Here are her top seven tips:
Learn to recognise an anxiety attack
This is important because understanding of an anxiety attack will help you to respond in the best way possible. Reassure yourself that it is only temporary, it will pass and you will be OK. Anxiety attacks can mimic other forms of illness.
If you are with someone who may be having an anxiety attack, help by making them comfortable, ask them if they have previously experienced this feeling or have been diagnosed with anxiety. This information means you are better able to help them through the episode.
It is critical to take control of your breathing when you are having an anxiety attack. Breathe in and out with deep, slow breaths. Count in for four while breathing in, and then out for four when exhaling. Deep breathing safeguards against hyperventilation.
Close your eyes
An environment with a lot happening around you can feed and worsen your anxiety. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing can help to reduce the level of anxiety you are feeling.
Physically ‘feel’ things
Physically feeling things helps to ground you and bring you back to reality helping to reassure you that all is OK. Wiggle your toes, tap the floor with your foot, put your hand into your handbag and feel around for familiar objects, feel the texture of your jeans or jacket on your skin. These sensations are familiar and bring comfort. If you are with someone experiencing anxiety, help them to feel several items or objects.
Find an item of focus
Look around and find an item of focus. Look at the item intently and describe its colour, size, and any other features that are of interest. This allows your mind to focus on something, rather than feeling anxious. If you are with someone having an episode of anxiety, point out an object and describe it together.
Muscle relaxation and stretching
Muscle relaxation and stretching techniques are an excellent way to calm the body. These can be done while standing or sitting. Simply stretch and clench/or squeeze different parts of your body – hold and release. If you are with someone having an anxiety attack, do the exercises together.
If you have had an episode of anxiety before, it is useful to develop a reassuring mantra – a calming phrase, a simple prayer or a line from a song that you can repeat to yourself. If you are with someone, your calm reassurance is everything. Saying something like, “It will be OK, this will pass quickly, and there is nothing to be concerned about.”
“There are some other comforting things you can do; for example, some people carry a really small bag of lavender in their handbag or pocket. Lavender is a great relaxant,” Pauline added.
“The key is to understand and acknowledge an anxiety attack and use these techniques to help you cope until it passes, which it does. The key to anxiety management is always relaxation. This is best achieved through dedication to learning and practising reliable relaxation techniques or meditation.
It may take time, but eventually, anxiety can be managed so that it doesn’t affect your life. Anxiety is part of being human.” Pauline explains further, saying “Sensitive, creative people are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety than others.”
If you feel like you might be suffering from anxiety or depression please reach out to Beyond Blue for further support.
Pauline McKinnon is psychotherapist, a published author specialising in the field of therapeutic meditation, and the founder of the Stillness Meditation Centre in Melbourne, Victoria. Pauline specialises in the Ainslie Meares’ natural style of meditation, with a focus on treating anxiety.