We live in a frenetic, overwhelming world, with lights and cars and trucks and beeps and staplers and people bumping into us and smells and that asshole yelling at us for parking like a drongo and too much coffee and so much on and computers and social media and the wellness industry and bullshit and politicians who do fuck-all and a dying reef and environment in general and the patriarchy and body dysmorphia and i-Phones and Instagram and likes and an-apple-a-day-keeps-the-no it doesn’t cancer is everywhere—and family disagreements and money and not having enough money and physio appointments and dinner on Friday and need to get d’affinois for dinner on Friday but can’t afford it and fights with your partner c’ause you’re overwhelmed and what’s our five year plan and why do we need a five year plan and why can’t we just live in the present!?
Have you ever had a panic attack?
Those of us nodding behind our screens will undoubtedly agree that they’re properly awful. For me a panic attack feels like I’m clouding over with dizziness, breathlessness and fear … it feels like my chest muscles are tightening, and are no longer under my control. It feels like my ‘self’ is either falling away, or becoming so glaringly close that I can’t see beyond it.
Even if you haven’t had a panic attack, do you go through bouts of anxiety? Most of us do, I suspect. Here are some thoughts about curbing your anxiety by changing your relationship with it, from someone who’s come a long way in the last couple of years (nb: this is just a reflection on my experience and what has helped me, medical advice is always recommended).
Anxiety isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s really important, and is a sign you’re an intuitive person. Anxiety is a feeling which tells us how we’re connecting—both to the world and to ourselves.
No, you’re not losing your mind. Instead of trying to push it away, we need to make it a mate… we need to focus on the things that help us temper it, and change our relationship with it so that when it comes, we can use it for good. I have loving family and friends—so in many ways it seems I have no reason to be anxious. (Spoiler: that’s a load of tosh—everyone has reason to be anxious—we are all fluid beings moving through a fluid world, affected by the goings on within it.) Despite my relative privilege, my panic attack portfolio was looking pretty shit hot for a while there, but these days I no longer have them, and am far better at managing my anxiety in general.
I recently read a book called Notes On A Nervous Planet, by Matt Haig. It’s a corker. Matt likens our connected world to a giant nervous system, where we’re the neurons and the world is a single being on the brink of a globe-sized panic attack. We’re in a time of cultural, technological and social overload.
I think this idea feels true to many of us. We can feel the bubbling over and tension… and it’s making us anxious. But how can we calm ourselves in such a wild world, and how can we learn to treat our anxiety differently?
Below are the things I have done, and some of the things Matt also recommends, to change the relationship we have with our ol’ pal anxiety.
Stop doing as much of the stuff that you know isn’t good for you
Stop drinking, smoking and doing whatever else, so much.
Do more of the things that make you connected and happy
This seems so obvious, but it’s advice from one of the psychologists I saw when I was in the midst of intense bouts of panic attacks. She asked me what I liked doing aside from drinking wine and rolling cigarettes, and I said “Reading, swimming, singing, writing and being in nature”, to which she replied “Cool, just do more of that” and ended our session.
Write down your triggers
Acknowledge the places that are triggers for you, and try to write down why. Are there lots of stimuli? Is there a lot of unnatural, human-made stuff there? Does it pull you back into an unpleasant memory? The lovely little part of our brain that helps us have recurring anxiety or panic attacks in certain situations is called the amygdala. This little biddie is a lover of habits, so we just need to re-train her so she can form new ones. Acknowledging your habits exist and wondering why they do, are the first steps in her new exercise regime.
Reading is one of the best and easiest ways to be present. You focus on what’s in front of you.
Lie on the Earth
‘Grounding yourself’ is a literal thing too. Lie on the grass and breathe. For real.
Get out of the city
Duh. Get out of man-made stuff and into the natural world. We aren’t on a planet, we are it, so get stuck in.
Turn off all notifications. This has been an important one for me
This is one of Matt’s recommendations, and is honestly one of the best things I’ve done to temper my anxiety. I don’t get ‘dings’ from my phone anymore. It is calming but also helps our brain focus far better on whatever task we’re doing.
Things can wait. People can wait. We don’t need to live in a world of immediacy.
Stop giving so much of a flip about what people think
People are thinking more about themselves than about what you said last night or what you were wearing. If they’re people worth keeping in your life they will understand that not all interactions are perfect and they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt or *shock horror* not judge you in the first place.
Try to retrain your amygdala
This is the aforementioned exercise regime. Mid panic attack, or as you’re falling into it, don’t run. Turn to face the feeling and say to it repeatedly and with intention:
I do not do this anymore.
I do not do this anymore.
I Do Not Do This ANYMORE.
Olivia! YOU DO NOT DO THIS ANYMORE.
I don’t do this anymore.
I am still working with this today, but it does help.
I do not have them anymore. (See? I’m even practicing now!)
Finally, know this is a relationship, not a means to an end
Anxiety—like happiness, fear, loneliness or anger—tells us about the way we are tilted in the world … and that something might need rebalancing. It is a reminder to care for ourselves, so try to reimagine it as an old friend who knows you well enough to pull you up when things are going awry.
Anxiety isn’t something we’ll ‘get rid’ of. Doing all of these calming things above aren’t a means to the end, to ‘Rid Ourselves of the Scourge of Anxiety!!’, like it’s some 1950s horror film. Instead, anxiety is a work in progress, a constant relationship, a pointer to how you can be more connected to yourself and life around you.
SO PEACE OUT SISTAS N’ BROTHAS. I’m off to go stare at an ant mound (another, odd thing that has helped me too)!
Words, Olivia Pirie-Griffiths