I Was Going to Write 5 Tips for Overcoming Anxiety. Then I Had a Panic Attack.
So here’s a funny story.
Back in 2014, I published what is now my most popular article I’ve ever written: How to Handle Someone Else’s Anxiety or Panic Attacks. I wrote it at the time because I saw so many self-help tips for anxiety (most of which are bullshit) and basically no resource on how to aid someone else going through it. I never realized it would hit well over one million views, still getting thousands per day. I am humbled by how many people it has reached and helped, and I hope you’re all doing well.
The success of that article has led to several requests for a follow-up article — something with additional tips or new insight. So about a month ago, I finally began working on one aimed at the sufferer this time. I was really feeling confident with how much improvement I’d made with my anxiety. I went through ups and downs and while I knew I was never “cured”, I did feel more in control of it than ever. The article, still sitting in my drafts, is called “5 Tips I Learned in 5 Years for Gaining Control Over My Anxiety.”
Then last night I had one of the worst panic attacks of my life.
It’s been 24 hours and I’m still not okay. Every one of the five tips I wrote went completely out the window all at once, like balloons being held by a toddler in the backseat of a convertible.
It was brought on by accidentally getting extremely high. I had been experimenting with weed to alleviate some anxiety and overthinking about other chronic conditions I have. It turns out it only works in small doses. Go figure.
It started with an innocent, stupid thought one might have while high: what if I had the exact same thought stuck in my head on loop forever? Ha, ha… but then it happened. That same question started repeating on loop in my head. Over, and over. I was just hearing the phrase again, and again, and again. And I couldn’t stop it. “What if I had… what if I had… what if I had…” It was like some new layer of consciousness took over and broke the layer underneath. I was able to do some cleaning and watch a show, but it was there the entire time and I couldn’t concentrate. I started thinking I severely messed up my brain somehow and that it was never going to go away and I’d never be able to concentrate on anything ever again. This, as you can imagine, led to a total meltdown.
Let me interject right here. If you’ve never had a panic attack, this probably sounds like the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard. If you have had one, it probably sounds a lot less ridiculous. If you’ve been both high and had a panic attack, it probably makes perfect sense.
I woke up this morning and immediately started thinking about it again. The phrase wasn’t really repeating in my head anymore, but I operated through most of this morning with an intense fear that it would come back. I was freaking out that maybe I was schizophrenic or that I’d get more harmful phrases stuck in my head eventually. I could barely concentrate at work and my mind was running a mile a minute. I’ve seen this next-day feeling called the “anxiety hangover” and that sounds about right. Even now a full day later, I’m only just starting to process all of it and slowly get back down to my regular thinking patterns. I’m still not fully convinced I’ll ever make a full recovery, but I’m trying to tell myself it’s the residual anxiety talking.
That was my funny story. Are you laughing yet? Sigh. Here I was so confidently ready to hit Publish on a follow-up article for handling anxiety. I was so ready to be the hero who could help even more people. And right on cue, in comes a rush of debilitating anxiety like I had never experienced before. Back to the drawing board, right?
Well, yes and no. You see, in the five years since I wrote the story about helping someone else with anxiety, I’ve developed more of a “you’re in control of your own life and emotions” stance. For me, that meant being able to control and overcome anxiety on your own, without having that helpful aid. The new tips I wanted to share revolved around that approach. Frankly, I never could truly fathom why that first article meant so much to so many people anyway.
But instead of five tips I learned in five years, I’m going to offer three tips I learned in the past 24 hours. And a really important lesson. I’m not a doctor, so please seek professional medical advice elsewhere if you feel you need it. I’m just a guy with anxiety trying to help.
In the middle of an anxiety or panic attack, remember to breathe in and out slowly and deeply. It takes a while to get the hang of it, but I will say that it does calm things down ever so slightly, and any relief at all in that moment of sheer terror is relief worth having. Also try your very best to remember that this is all temporary. All panic eventually subsides and whatever feeling you’re having right now won’t be forever. If you’ve had panic attacks in the past, recall that they all eventually came to an end.
2. Eat well.
This is one I’m pulling from my original “5 Tips in 5 Years” list, but I’m doubling down on it after last night. Modifying my diet has helped so much with my anxiety over the years. I’m not just talking about counting calories either, I mean focusing on eating real, clean, whole foods. Try to limit or eliminate added sugar, excessive grains, and processed garbage. Maybe even try something like the Whole30 to see what works for you, which has been pretty transformative for me. More and more studies show a direct link between gut health and mental health too. Prior to my panic attack, I hadn’t really eaten more than one full meal per day in an entire week. I’d been stressed about other medical conditions I suffer with, but I realize now I was probably malnourished leading up to my panic attack last night. My anxiety is always lower when I’m on top of my diet.
I’m throwing away my I-don’t-need-anyone mentality. We all need someone, or multiple people. We all need stable, loving, wholesome connections with people near and dear to us. As Brené Brown famously said, “In the absence of love and connection, there is always suffering.” Find someone who can consistently lift your spirits, who cares about your well-being, and who not only allows you to be your vulnerable, truest self, but embraces every aspect of it. Reach out and tell them what you’ve been going through. Let them flood you with support. The brightest moments of my life have been moments overflowing with mutual love and understanding, and those moments have always been when I was the least anxious.
In all honesty, this is something I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. Vulnerability and connection are really hard. Figuring out who to trust and who to pour your heart out to is increasingly difficult when social media allows us to shout whatever we want at whoever we want, and when we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis with so many other people struggling to cope. I think that’s why I was trying to rebel against the idea that they were necessary. I lost sight of what made my original article so popular. It’s not a guide for curing anxiety like I thought, it’s a guide for facilitating love and connection. It’s for anyone who sees someone they love struggling and wants to say “Hey, I love you, and I’m here for you.”
So here I am, tired and still very on edge after last night. And after five years, this is my follow-up article. Life will hit you like a ton of bricks sometimes. Anxiety will shatter you and challenge everything you think you know. I hope my first two tips do help improve anxiety long term, but I realize now that in any dark hour, there is nothing quite like that helping hand from a loving person willing to extend it.
To all the helpers, you are selfless, beautiful, and deeply appreciated. To all the anxiety sufferers, you are strong and you are worthy of a clear mind and a long life of love and fulfillment. Let’s march on together.