This morning I felt completely overwhelmed.
I could feel the panic crackling in my chest like loud radio static.
I cried in the gym.
I sat in the car letting the "how on earth am I going to get it all done in time" questions flood through my mind.
It has been nearly a full year since I last had a panic attack and today, despite how my body felt, I kept that streak going.
I have struggled with panic attacks on and off since I was in primary school, like lots of other people my age they were never addressed as a mental wellbeing problem. I was even prescribed an inhaler at one stage. I’m not laying any blame at the feet of my caregivers, I was privileged to grow up surrounded by incredibly kind and loving people. They did their best within the knowledge that they had and the social norms I grew up in and that is all we can ask of anyone.
I have never been somebody that considered themselves anxious. I have spent a lot of time working with anxious people, and their challenges seem very different to mine - and yet, I get panic attacks. Words are powerful and important, so I choose to use the word panic instead of anxiety since it is a more accurate description of what is going on in my body.
In the past couple of years I have learned so much about managing my panic, and that is what I want to share with you. We are seeing record levels of anxiety and panic attacks in school, and while traditional medications and therapies are working for some, they aren’t having a lasting effect for many of the young people and teachers I speak to.
Here are the three things I have learnt that help me manage panic attacks:
It isn't pleasant, but I no longer waste my time fighting it. I know that the fear of panic is actually much worse than simply sitting with it. I also know that the panic attack is fuelled by my internal fight, so although it was terrifying the first time I did it, I now focus my mind on inviting the sensation of panic into my body rather than pushing it away.
I observe and describe it. My panic is grey static, it is scratchy and makes my throat tighten. It isn’t hot or cold, it is about the size of a pint glass in my chest. When I take this position of the ‘observer’ my panic doesn’t disappear, but nor does it grow. I have somehow distanced myself from the drama of it and that brings a little bit of calm. I also observe how different responses affect it. I notice that when I breathe slowly, into my belly, my throat doesn't feel tight any more. For some people, placing their hand on the place where they feel an emotion is helpful, this doesn’t work for me when I feel panicked. Instead, I focus on drawing the static down into my stomach or out across my shoulders like I am loosening a ball of knotted string.
I practise observing other emotions too, so I am rarely caught completely off guard anymore. That's how I got good at managing my panic. I notice that annoyance shows up in my jaw and is burning hot. Embarrassment is fizzy and hangs out somewhere between my mouth and my ears. Joy is a cosy orange colour and spreads from my chest to my stomach and my smile. Practising is how we get skilled at anything, that is as true for emotions as it is for kicking a ball.
I might sound like a crazy person for sharing this, but learning to observe and hang out with your emotions is the single most powerful thing I have ever done for my mental health and my growth.
If you have never tried observing your emotions then I would encourage you to try it. Get curious about how you feel, get to know the shape and texture of your emotions. Start to recognise the thoughts that trigger them, and the actions that excite or soothe them.
After all, if you are not ruled by your emotions and know that you can sit, albeit uncomfortably in them, then you learn something about yourself. You learn that you can do hard things. And THAT my friends, is what empowerment feels like. 👊
End note: When I started to manage my emotions in this way I did it intuitively and used mindfulness. Since then, I have discovered Neuroscientist Dr Russell Kennedy’s work on managing anxiety. He offers some incredible context for why this stuff works, his research is a great place to start if you are interested in learning more.