Here’s a question that a reader just asked me, which I’m answering in a post for everyone: “What recommendations do you have as far as a daily routine, therapy, or books to make the fear of losing control less prominent?” Her question was related to this post about the fear of losing control.
While this may not need to be a daily ritual for long, what worked for me in curing my panic attacks, which stemmed from a fear of losing control (which stemmed from a fear of making the wrong choice) — was a variety of tools:
* The book “From Panic to Power” by Lucinda Bassett (seriously, this book saved my butt)
* Biofeedback (what panic feels like in my body before it takes hold)
* Action, any sized action (making a decision, taking a walk, calling someone, writing a list)
* Making sure to eat, and trading chocolate, sweets and carbs (caffeine) for proteins and vegetables, eggs and broccoli, namely
(Um, caffeine is in parentheses becasue I drink two cups of coffee in the a.m.)
* Being a home to myself
* Exercise and meditation
I learned what panic feels like bodily for me (the biofeedback part), which was a burning sensation in my chest and tightness in my forearms. Whenever my What If thoughts started to trigger a cortisol release in my body and start to build up to panic, I could shut if off before the fight/flight response truly kicked in. This is something that happens in a matter of seconds — the onset of thoughts and also my shutting it off. Like, people in the room aren’t going to know. It’s worth noting that almost always I had eaten crap in the preceding hours. Other times the trigger was that I had not spoken up about what I wanted, and felt trapped. It’s worth back-tracking in your mind to get a sense of what set off your particular trigger.
There have been times that the act of sitting down and eating a heaping bowl of steamed organic broccoli has restored my sanity. That is, of course an action, and it is also of course parenting myself. All good stuff.
Reading about Panic and Anxiety (and PTSD)
When reading the book and highlighting and dog-earing the heck of out it, I realized that the antidote to panic attacks was taking action. I saw that, for me, panic was a state of non-doing, of inaction, of fear, and being frozen. And that helped me see that taking action — just a simple walk around the block to dis-engage from the power of the cortisol to bigger actions like asking for what I needed, or saying what I couldn’t do — was the cure.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Questions I ask myself to break out of a panic attack:
What do I want?
What do I need to get that?
Do I have to make this decision now?
Who, exactly, am I making this decision for?
What am I scared of? (When you figure this out, you can do what I think of ‘flip it’ comic relief. If you’re scared of losing control and having a terrible life as a result of a decision you’re sweating, then say: I’m going to be alienated by my fiends and family and die alone miserable if I ___________ [take this job, move to a new town, follow my instincts about this relationship not working, buy this used car, take this risk, etc.) Let’s hope you’re not too far gone to see the humor in it.
What do I need to find out before I can know enough to make a decision? (We often expect ourselves to “know” the answer without all the information.)
Cardio & Meditation
This couldn’t be more important: cardiovascular exercise. Sweat once a day for 30-60 minutes. Books have been written on the value of this, including books that point to the anti-depression and anti-anxiety value of daily cardio!
Meditation and learning about mindfulness — will transform your life. Period. If you’re taking notice of what’s around you, really taking note, you’re not going to be in your head, worrying.
What sounds do you hear? What colors? Scents? What’s happening, large and small? What’s the smallest detail you can pick out of your environment right now? Oops, is that too playful, too much like being a kid? Good!
PTSD and Panic & Anxiety
I want to throw out there that if we are suffering from PTSD from childhood experiences–and a great deal of us are–then we have lived in a state of chronic shock for a long, long time.
I wrote about PTSD in adult children in this post. This means we have lived life in a reactionary, survivor-state in our lives rather than an active, self-propelled and thriving mode.
Re-action, rather than ACTion.
Deciding to be Home in Myself
The best way I can explain this is to write out how I think this concept: Inside me is my home, where I am safe, and I’m OK. If I am with myself, I am home wherever I am, whatever chaos might be going on around me, whatever line I’m waiting in, or scary endeavor I’m going for. I’m not away from my home base, it’s in me. I am home, right here. Always. I’m OK.
Therapy? Yes, yes, and yes. That (and writing and reading books about adult children) has helped me enormously. Be sure to hire a therapist who specializes in your area of need (abusive parents, addictions, narcissism, etc.). That’s key. Talk through all that happened when you were a child, dig into and grieve about it all. Here’s advice on how to hire a therapist.
So, those are the tips. Here’s a bit on my history with panic attacks, which was a longer history than I knew once I had my “first” attack…
My “First” Panic Attack
My “first” panic attack was triggered by the combination of a break-up from a big relationship and moving to a new town (we had lived together), specifically the fear that I wasn’t making the “right” decision to move out of town. (I was moving out to the country from a suburb and I was worried about feeling isolated out there). I was so emotionally fatigued from what led to the break-up, the break-up itself, the packing, setting up new bills, canceling other bills, changing addresses on subscriptions, and figuring how my commute would work, that I didn’t have much left to fight off What If scenarios. Basically it came down to: what if this is the “wrong” decision and my life gets off on the wrong track in a really bad way? I was in such a state that I couldn’t eat, I called an emergency help line because I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a heart attack or if I was paralyzed somehow, and I called and cancelled all the new utilities and told my new landlord that I wasn’t taking the apartment after all. I’d undone all my efforts to move! Later that day I called back and confirmed with the landlord that, no, yes, right, I was indeed taking the apartment, and I made all the calls to yet again set up all the utilities and address changes.
After the break-up and some reflection on my panic attack, a couple months later (once I was in my new place and quite happy) I realized that it hadn’t been my first panic attack, and that I had actually had a few panic attacks as a preteen and teenager. Those happened a few times, times when my dad and stepmom “caught” me doing something I shouldn’t have been doing according to them (talking on the phone when I should have been working on a school project home alone and hanging out with a friend when I should have been (again) doing schoolwork and a couple other times when I was angrily accused of things appearing to be other than what they actually were). They–particularly my dad–angrily confronted me about what it “appeared” I was doing versus whether or not I was doing that (my school project was already done and sitting out on the table). So, basically, I was put in a position of having to defend a lie, to defend appearances, accused of lying, and was scared out of my wits that what I knew to be reality…wasn’t being acknowledged. I trust that you can relate.
So, in reality, I’d had a history of panic attacks. I didn’t do much with that insight, frankly. I’d survived the break-up panic attack and didn’t particularly want to invite another one back by thinking about panic attacks. So, I “moved on.”
It wasn’t till a few years later, when I was in a similar scenario (again a break-up and moving), that I had another panic attack–actually a cluster of them, that I got it. I got that I had more than a one-time problem and that I needed to really, truly, finally address the deeper issues.
That last time, those clusters of attacks, are what led me to Lucinda Bassett’s book, biofeedback, taking action, and my beloved anti-anxiety broccoli cure. Now I pick up on the feeling of what What If thoughts do to me — they become burning lungs and tight forearms. Soon as I feel those sensations, I stop it. I un-wind myself right then and there.
No panic attacks since then.
For me, the most lasting tool has been the knowing of being Home to myself. Maybe you can come up with your own “You’re home, you are the home, home is in you…” mantra to comfort yourself with. (What would you say to your kid self to reassure him or her that you’re in charge of parenting now and vow to treat yourself with kindness and respect? Say that.) I’ve been able to derail the What If thoughts that precede the tingly chest and tight forearms feelings with those murmurings.
Be kind to yourself.