Waves of dizziness, tingling, nausea, racing thoughts and feelings of panic. Crushing fear, shaking, feeling overwhelmingly hot and cold at the same time, all while your mind goes at 100mph into a negative, apocalyptic tailspin.
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety you’ll know that it is the most awful, nerve-wracking experience. Whether your experience was mild or a full-blown, all-out, nausea-inducing attack, unless you know how to manage anxiety, it can literally stop you in your tracks.
As an anxiety suffer myself for over 20 years, I know a thing or two about anxiety attacks. I’ve had my fair share of moments when I thought I might pass out, or throw up, or that I needed to just get out of wherever I was right now.
Yet with experience comes answers, and combined with my training in psychology, coaching, and counselling, I now have my anxiety pretty much under control.
I’d like to share with you how I manage anxiety to keep the attacks at bay. These strategies are meant to be used in preparation for, or during, an anxiety attack to help you calm down, regain control, and move past it faster. Each of these strategies have been tested by yours truly, and have been game changers in my battle against my anxiety.
Hopefully, they will change the game for you too.
1) Prepare in advance
While it may seem that your anxiety can strike out of nowhere, there will be certain triggers or situations that you can prepare in advance for. Learning my own personal triggers and preparing in advance to manage my anxiety has given me the ability to confidently do things that would have previously sent me into an anxiety attack.
From experience, I know that my three main triggers are travel (especially air travel or long distances in one go), social situations, and food. For each of these situations, I have a plan, which often is enough by itself. Taking steps in advance to prevent an attack from happening, and knowing that if it does, I have everything I need to take care of it, gives me the confidence to keep putting myself in these situations and know I’ll be ok.
Here’s how I prepare for one of my major anxiety triggers – flying.
Before I had my preparation plan in place, you could guarantee that I would feel sick from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed at my destination. I was a total wreck every time, which in turn meant my mum was a total wreck worried about me and wondering why on earth I insisted on getting on a plane in the first place.
Now, I have a plan, and can confidently get through an entire travel day without so much as a whiff of anxiety.
My plan starts with the time of day I choose to fly. I always fly overnight. My anxiety is highest in the mornings, so I make sure I do not have to leave for the airport until at least lunchtime, giving me all morning to finish packing and take my time. Flying overnight also makes it more likely I will sleep on the plane, which helps pass the time and keep me from becoming overtired.
Next is food. I make sure I eat a decent breakfast and lunch, and take food with me to the airport. Food is another of my triggers, so I make sure I have food with me that I know I like and can eat if I start feeling nervous. I also take my own food for the flight, in case the plane food is bad, or not served at the time I want to eat – being in control of what and when I eat helps me enormously.
I also carry a ton of water with me. Once I get through security, the first thing I do is buy at least two liters of water. Having had the experience of running out of water and not being able to get more I now know to make sure I ALWAYS have enough on me!
I always take travel sickness pills and wear Sea Bands the entire day, whether I feel I need them or not. Stopping any nausea before it starts makes a huge difference, and both the travel sickness pills and the Sea Bands work wonders for me. I actually put the Sea Bands on first thing in the morning and leave them on until I get to my destination.
Finally, I have whoever is picking me up from the airport at the other end bring me an apple. Apples are my comfort food when I am anxious. You can’t bring them into a country through customs, so I have to leave my own stash on the plane. Having an apple to munch for the final car ride home makes sure I don’t have an attack when I’m at my most tired.
It might seem like a lot, but for me it really is the difference between feeling good and enjoying my flight, and being a nervous, nauseous wreck.
2) Make sure you’ve eaten
For many of us, food is a big anxiety trigger. Whether it’s combined with the social aspects of going out to eat with others, fears over being able to eat what is on offer, or something else related to eating and consuming food, food anxiety is a huge problem.
What you might not know though, is that the food you eat (or don’t eat) might be triggering your anxiety for another reason.
Did you know that low blood sugar symptoms can mimic the symptoms of anxiety?
If our blood sugar levels drop because we haven’t eaten in a while, or because we’ve eaten something sugary that gave us a great initial burst of energy but is now bringing us back down with a crash, we can experience the same symptoms as anxiety.
Then, because we have anxiety-like symptoms, our brains mislabel our low blood sugar symptoms as real anxiety and boom – anxiety attack hits you like a ton of bricks.
Learning the relationship between low blood sugar and my anxiety has made a massive difference to me. I’ve used it as part of my flying plan – that’s why I eat before I get hungry on travel days, so that my blood sugar doesn’t have a chance to drop too low. I also eat small snacks regularly, especially on days when I’m going out to eat in social situations.
Yes – I eat BEFORE I go out to dinner. Sounds dumb but it works brilliantly for me. While this does mean I often don’t eat much at dinner, it also means that I won’t be super hungry and have low blood sugar going into a situation I know I am prone to anxiety in. Some of my worst anxiety attacks have occurred out to dinner with friends, especially those times when I was already pretty hungry, then someone was late so you don’t order straight away, then the food took AGES to come. Just because you go to dinner at 7 doesn’t mean you’re actually going to be eating then – it could be up to an hour later when you finally get your food. A small snack ahead of time to take the edge off my hunger means I don’t have to worry about low blood sugar bringing on an anxiety attack.
(Might go have a snacky snack now so I don’t feel crummy later on lol!)
3) Relax into it
This one is harder than it sounds and takes a little practice, but once you’ve got it you’ll be able to use it effectively to release anxiety as it hits you.
When anxiety hits, our muscles flood with blood, oxygen and adrenaline as our bodies prepare to fight, flight, or freeze. As the anxiety increases, our muscles tense and tighten ready to respond. This sends an increasing stress signal to the brain, reinforcing the stress response and increasing our anxiety even further.
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you’ll recognize the feeling of a kind of ‘wave’ that rushes over you. Kind of tingly all over, a bit lightheaded, and feeling a little like you might to pass out. This ‘wave’ sensation can be quite scary, increasing our panic and sending our hearts racing even more.
When this first started happening to me, this unwelcome sensation would send me into a panic. My negative thoughts would race, and I’d start to feel hotter and hotter. I would feel like I was going to pass out or throw up right there.
Now, I’ve learned to relax into the waves and let them go.
Instead of getting more anxious, you can take a curious approach to the waves. When you feel one starting, try to consciously relax your muscles and say to yourself “OK, this is happening, I wonder how big the feeling will get?” Let the feeling grow and grow, without concerning yourself over whether or not you are actually going to pass out (you’re not, unless you start to panic) and when it reaches its peak, let it dissipate into nothing.
Sometimes I even challenge it, and say to myself “come on, let’s see how big you can get! Is that all you got? Ha!” The key is being curious about the sensations rather than anxious, and letting it wash over you. It’s not easy and takes some practice, but eventually you will be able to let an anxiety wave wash up over you and dissipate, then get on with your day like nothing happened.
4) Thank your body for trying to protect you
Like other emotions, anxiety, nervousness, and fear are part of our body’s way of communicating with us. How we feel is a direct message from our body relative to what is going on around us. In the case of anxiety, our mind has determined (rightly or wrongly) that there is a threat present, and is sending signals to us by way of our feelings and emotions that we need to be prepared.
You are probably aware that the fight, flight, or freeze response evolved as a way for the body to quickly prepare itself for danger. Back in the caveman days, the sight of a sabre tooth tiger or other equally scary and dangerous predator would send signals to the brain to prepare us to either fight or flee for our lives.
Today, we are lucky enough not to come into contact with sabre tooth tigers very often, yet our fight or flight response still gets triggered. Giving presentations, social situations, or any number of triggers can set it off.
Another coping strategy that I have found really helpful is to remind myself whenever my anxiety is triggered is that it is a message (albeit a misguided one) that I am in danger and that my mind and body are just doing their job looking out for me. Now, they might not be doing the job very well in that moment, and be sending me messages about non-existent danger, but nevertheless my mind and body have my best interests at heart.
So I thank them for it.
Once I’ve determined that there is no real imminent danger that I need to take action to prepare for, I mentally thank my body for trying to take care of me. I let it know I’ve received the message, and that there is nothing to worry about, but thanks anyway for thinking of me.
It might sound a bit silly, but what it forces you to do is respond to your anxiety with compassion and gratitude, rather than escalating fear, anger, or frustration. By acknowledging that the anxiety you are feeling is actually your body trying to protect you, you can respond more compassionately, calmly, and let it go faster.
Treat it like a four year old that wanted to help make dinner. They’ve made a right old mess, sprayed the walls with mashed potatoes and gotten carrots in their socks. You can either get even more stressed out at the extra cleanup, or show gratitude at their willingness and desire to help you. Their intention was good, even though it wasn’t really that much help at all.
5) Tell someone when it’s happening
This was a game changer for me. I remember one of the first times I actually spoke up and told someone that I wasn’t doing OK. I was meeting friends in a pub with a big night out planned, and was staying over with them for the night. I remember having intense anxiety, compounded by recovering from being unwell a few weeks before. I was so nervous about ruining the night and what would happen if I had to leave and drag my friends home early that I was close to being physically sick.
Eventually, my anxiety got so bad I had no choice but to tell them I might need to leave. To my utter amazement, they were totally fine with it! I was stunned, literally stunned, that they were not bothered at all. They were very supportive, and said if I needed to go, I needed to go. It wasn’t a problem at all.
It was like a huge weight was lifted off me. I wasn’t going to ruin the night, and I had the option to leave if I needed to. I felt back in control, and had so much gratitude for my wonderful, understanding, and caring friends. My stress level dropped, my anxiety dropped, and we actually went on to have an amazing night out.
Being able to be honest with those around you that you are struggling lifts a huge weight off of your shoulders. Knowing that if I feel anxiety coming on that I can tell someone and not hide it really helps keep my stress levels down. It allows me to do the small things I need to re-center myself, such as go to the bathroom or step outside for fresh air, without having to explain myself. It also opens up the conversation for others – once you start letting people in you’ll be surprised to find out how many feel the same way you do.
Recommended book: The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points by Alice Boyes Ph.D
6) Don’t try to ‘be OK’ for the sake of others
This is a toughie.
One of the most difficult things to deal with when it comes to anxiety is how it might be impacting others. How will your friends react if you cancel another night out? How will your spouse react if you have another anxiety attack at the supermarket? How will your boss react if you call off work again or need to leave during the day?
Dealing with the spiraling negative thoughts about ourselves is bad enough, but when we add in our fear over letting others down, it can send us over the edge.
Now, I’m not saying that we need to totally disregard the feelings of others when our anxiety hits, but I do believe that there comes a point when we have to put ourselves first and do what we need to do to take care of ourselves. If that means someone is mad at us for a while, then so be it.
This is where open communication is important. In my experience, people are much more open to accepting the situation if they know what’s going on. It gives them context, and makes it easier for them to understand. It also helps them understand it is not because of anything they did, or that you don’t like or care about them. It’s just something you are dealing with and that right now, in this moment, this is what you need to do to deal with it.
Unfortunately, there will always be someone that doesn’t understand and gets angry at you. This can be hard to deal with, especially if you are already feeling worthless. It’s horrible to think you ruined the night or have spoiled someone’s plans, or that you’ve caused them pain in any way.
You have to remember though, that just because they don’t understand your anxiety and find it an annoyance, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. You don’t have to ‘be OK’ for their sake. Your needs are important too. Would they react the same if you had a physical illness? Or a broken leg? Probably not. But one of the challenges of mental health issues is that they are invisible and very often disregarded as being made up or ‘all in our heads’.
When it really comes down to it, you do not have to put yourself through immense suffering for the sake of someone else. If you are really struggling, and nothing is working to help calm you down, it is OK to say no. You do not have to suffer and pretend to be OK just so you don’t inconvenience someone.
Accept that there are going to be times when you have to say no. Accept that it might make someone mad. Then get on with it. Let them be mad – if they are a good friend they’ll want to understand and support you, not cast you aside as a nuisance.
Over to you…
One of the most important things when it comes to thriving through anxiety is not avoiding the situations that trigger it. Avoidance only creates more anxiety, making it harder and harder to face it again in the future. Finding ways that work for you to manage your anxiety so that you can still do the things you want to do is the key to moving from surviving to thriving.
Which of these strategies have you tried? Which ones work for you? Do you use others? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
If you’d like to hear more from me on building confidence and overcoming anxiety and self-doubt, you can sign up for my newsletter and get my articles and more sent straight to your inbox.
Stay in touch!
Join the 4,500+ individuals that follow my blog! Sign up to get my confidence-building, self-doubt, and anxiety articles, book and course recommendations, and other cool stuff to help you live your best life sent straight to your inbox!