The advice I keep coming back to.
The first time I had a panic attack, I felt like I was going to die. Not in the silly, Hollywood “I think I’m going to have a heart attack, rush me to the ER!” kind of way, but something else entirely. My body was electric, deeply hypersensitive about everything around me, but my mind was completely disassociated.
Breaths weren’t going past my collarbones and the knot in my stomach felt like it might fall out of my arse. My head wasn’t tethered to my body, and inside, my brain said “You’ve taken on too much. Why do you keep doing this? You stupid-fucking bitch, you cannot possibly do this. Now you’re going to die.”
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Pretty scary, right? Since that very first panic attack less than a year ago, I’ve probably had another ten episodes – or as we call them in my house, ‘whoopsies’ – and while they’re still not very much fun, I’m better equipped at dealing with them.
I’ve been medicated for clinical anxiety and depression for most of my twenties and I’ve been in therapy for even longer, so I’ve tried a lot of different things (and been given a lot of advice) to help me when I’m in the middle of a whoopsy. These are some of my favourites.
Know what makes you feel better and have it easily accessible (just in case)
Ever since I was a kid, when I felt overwhelmed, I’d hop into bed and tightly wrap myself in my doona like a caterpillar in its cocoon. It’s very containing and kind of feels like you’re getting a big hug, so investing in a weighted blanket was a huge game-changer for me. Sometimes, all I need is to be swaddled like a baby.
Other times, I turn to my dog Scout. In her old age, she loves a good cuddle and patting her makes me feel grounded and present in the moment, rather than anxious and disembodied. If I’ve been crying, she quite enjoys the salty taste of my tears which she licks off my face. While objectively gross, it always makes me laugh. And when all else fails, I make myself a cup of tea.
Practice coping strategies every day
This is one I really struggle with, but I know it works. Strategies like meditating aren’t as impactful if you only do them when you’re anxious. My GP and psychologist both tell me I need to practise meditation daily so that I learn to associate it with feelings of calmness.
I think of it a bit like learning something like self-defence: you learn and practice lifesaving skills so you have them in your arsenal should you need them. I quite like the Australian-founded Smiling Mind app, which boasts a range of different guided meditation programs and even has a ‘Stress Management’ program that teaches you what to do when you’re in ‘the red zone’ (aka feeling very stressed).
Contact someone in your support network
About a month ago, I was having one of the most stressful time periods of my life. I’d agreed to partake in two art exhibitions, started a new part-time job, signed on to work with a modelling agency (champagne problems, right), started dating someone new, had an assignment worth 90 per cent of my final grade due and my dog had simultaneous gastrointestinal, ear and skin infections.
And on top of all of that, my family had gone on a trip interstate, so I felt like I was dealing with everything on my own. I had the usual stress-related symptoms, like headaches, insomnia and a constant sore tummy, but this time I also enjoyed a full body stress-rash that covered most of my body. Which, as someone trying to make money off of the way I look, was less than ideal.
When it came to the day my assignment was due, I felt hopeless. Paralysed, and having written nowhere near the 3,000 words required by my uni, I called my grandmother. Through tears, I said, “I actually can’t do this. I took too long doing research and it’s due today and I can’t do it”. Calmly, she told me that I’d been here before and I always ended up achieving what I thought was impossible. She also said one of my favourite phrases: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Break down big scary things into small achievable tasks
Instead of thinking ‘Wow, I’ve got this 3000-word essay due in twelve hours’ my grandma suggested I break it down into chunks. I started off by drafting a basic outline of my assignment and set realistic time goals for writing – in an hour I’d have written 500 words, in two hours I’d have written 1000, and so on. That being said, I didn’t just write all day. I made sure I took lots of breaks and only wrote in small bursts, to keep me from feeling overwhelmed.
One resource I like using is the Pomodoro Technique where you work for 25 minutes at a time, followed by a 5-minute break. Again, this practice is about breaking something big into small, achievable little bites. And to top it all off, my grandma rang me at each of those checkpoints, to see how I was doing. To say I’m grateful for my support network would be a gross understatement. I realise how lucky I am, and sometimes I really can’t believe I’ve got them in my corner.
Unplug from the news
In light of everything terrible happening in the world, I felt overwhelmed with heaviness. Roe v Wade? Gone! Mass shootings? Abundant! Active number of COVID-19 cases? Astronomical! It got to a point where I dreaded unlocking my phone because I didn’t know what horrific news piece would be there waiting for me.
So, with that in mind, I decided to ‘mute’ every news page on my Instagram feed and that gave me some space to breathe. As my dear friend recently said to me, “Sienna, don’t read the news, it’s none of your business”. While I believe in staying informed and I know I’ll eventually start reading news sources again, for now, this move has given me the biggest reduction in stress. There’s a reason why people say “ignorance is bliss”.
Say no to stuff (if you can)
Obviously, to be able to do this means you have some level of privilege afforded to you – and I understand that this isn’t always achievable. As someone who relied solely on freelance work for the last year and a bit, I get the temptation to say yes to every opportunity you’re given. Work seems to either be available in abundance or not at all, so I always feel like I need to say yes today because there might not be anything tomorrow.
But by saying yes to everything, I found myself dragging my heels on some of my less exciting projects, eventually becoming resentful of them, and lowering my overall productivity. I know we shouldn’t be using productivity as a marker for success, but if the things we’re taking on in hopes of being more productive end up making us less productive, then what the hell are we doing?
Finally, be kind to yourself
I have a very mean little voice in my head, and it’s very easy to let it win. To avoid being swallowed up by my own negativity, I have to actively correct myself when I feel the mean voice bruising my (very fragile) ego. Instead of shaming myself for being anxious, I try my best to acknowledge my feelings without judgement.
For example, I might say to myself (sometimes aloud): “Yes, I’m feeling really stressed about this thing, but I know I’m okay. I’m not dying and I know I have the skills to get through these negative feelings and do that thing that feels insurmountable.” And that’s really it. Despite my anxious brain, I do know that I’m not going to die, and that I’m safe, and I will get that thing done – and you can too.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.