I could feel each heartbeat banging in my chest. I could hear pulsing in my ears. Then… I stopped being able to feel my hands and my feet.
With shaky, numb hands, I called my doctor, who immediately sent me into urgent care.
I was terrified that something was wrong with me, but when my EKG came back as normal, the nurse said: “You’re totally healthy. But… are you stressed?”
This happened about 5 years ago, and it was a wake-up call for me to take action in managing my anxiety. About a year after the episode, I figured out that in the months leading up to my urgent care visit, I had been having repeated anxiety attacks without even knowing.
The first step in my process was actually listening to my body. As it turns out, I can be a high performer in a state of anxiety, and probably had been for most of my life. I had always been so focused on getting things done, I thought the alarm bells going off in my body were just normal.
Working closely with a therapist, I started to identify the alarm bells: increased heart rate, and not feeling my hands or feet. Over time, we also started to realize the subtler physical symptoms that can arise in the weeks or months leading to a panic attack: heaviness on my chest, lump in my throat, tiredness, spiraling thoughts. I found cognitive behavioral therapy to be key in challenging my many automatic assumptions that lead to anxiety. As a result, I went from having constant panic attacks to having one every few years.
I’ve found the physical management of my body’s panic response to be the most helpful in managing my anxiety immediately. All it requires is a bit of discipline: Once I feel the initial physical symptoms of anxiety, there are some habits I can kick in right away.
1. Take a walk. Movement is the best and most immediate way I manage my anxiety. It keeps my head clear and will often pause spiraling thoughts. Yoga and dance class are important parts of my regular schedule. For a long time, I thought managing anxiety meant relaxing, and relaxing meant watching TV or chilling out at home. As it turns out, for an extrovert who already works remotely, being home alone was one of the worst things I could do for myself. In fact, the panic attack that led me to urgent care came on while I was trying to “relax” by being home alone.
2. Prioritize sleep. I do this by limiting or stopping intake of caffeine or alcohol, and putting my phone away at around 8pm. Things seem so much more overwhelming when I haven’t had a good night’s rest.
3. Co-work. I’m an extrovert who works remotely, which means I am exhausted every day by text chat communication. Going into a co-working space helps me regain energy to get me through the day.
4. See friends. This is the single most recharging activity I have available to me when I’m anxious, and I’m so grateful to have a close-knit circle of friends who I can rely on for walks, talks, and hangout time.
5. Take the dog for a walk! My pup Fritz is especially great at chilling me out. :)
6. Regular meditation. Instead of being swept up in the current of emotions and feelings, I get to be an observer and watch what’s happening. In periods of high stress, I make sure to practice for 10 minutes every morning.
7. Take breaks. Reset time is key.
8. Acceptance. Anxiety is a part of my everyday life and it will only cause me endless frustration to fight it. As Bill Hader says, it’s just a little monster that’s along for the ride, and it will require care on a regular basis.