Hey, so welcome to part three of this little series, All About Anxiety. And this time we're gonna round up thinking about when anxiety has gone rogue. What do you do when anxiety is making you feel rubbish?
And if you've not caught part one and two of this little series, then do go to beheadstrong.uk to catch up so that you get the full story.
But anxiety is tough, isn't it? Because we don't like the way that it makes us feel. And sometimes our reaction to fear is, well, fear. Because sometimes we've had experiences where the worst has actually happened or where we felt really terrible. And that means that when we feel a little spike of anxiety we become scared that something like that will happen again or we just don't know how to handle it. Our past experience has taught us that this is a really bad place to be and it makes it hard to handle.
But the thing is the best things in life will make you feel anxious because anxiety is your brain's way of telling you that something matters. So even good stuff in life or things you have to do, like exams or interviews or going on a date, that stuff will cause a flare up anxiety. Even though it's something that you don't want to have to avoid.
So you can't just eradicate anxiety much as you might like to and say, 'I never want to feel this again'. What you've got to do is learn how to live with it, learn how to handle it, learn how to manage anxiety without losing it.
But how do you know when you need some help with that? Well, the most common way that people struggle with anxiety at the moment is panic attacks.
Now, this is something that happens when you've got so good at just trying to ignore anxiety because you don't know how to deal with it. So you're just suppressing it, distracting yourself from it. You get so good at that that you don't even notice this at first. So if you think of anxiety on a nought to 10 scale, it's basically, you ignore it, you ignore it, you ignore it as it goes up the scale but it builds up and up and up because its job is to get your attention.
And eventually what happens is the physical symptoms caused by your anxiety rising, they suddenly become really obvious. It's like they pass a threshold and you can't ignore them anymore. And then they can be quite scary: so maybe your heart is just pounding. Maybe you've got palpitations or what feels like an irregular heartbeat. Your breathing's gone all puffy and it feels like you can't get your breath, or maybe you just feel weird or not yourself or dizzy or sick, or you've got pain somewhere. And you're thinking, 'What on earth is going on?' Or, 'Am I ill? Am I about to have a heart attack? Am I going to pass out? Am I going to throw up? Is something really embarrassing going to happen?'.
And those thoughts, they trigger more anxiety. So it just ramps it all up and it makes the symptoms even worse!
And as part of that, your breathing pattern changes. And what's really interesting about anxiety is how your breathing influences that physiological stuff that's going on. Because when you breathe out, it's like a fire extinguisher dampening down the flames of anxiety. And when you breathe in, that sort of shallow fast breathing that you do in an emergency moment, that kind of sustains your anxiety. It keeps you on edge, ready to react in case you need to. So it flares up your anxiety, it fans that flame into something that can quickly become like a bonfire.
And when we're in that anxious place therefore, when we're breathing that shallow, fast, hyperventilating type breathing, it changes your physiology even more so you can start to feel even more weird than you already did. And it can cause weird symptoms, like tingling in your fingers and toes or chest pains, and it can make you feel faint and lightheaded. And so, all this physiology can end up feeling really dramatic. And someone having a panic attack can look really unwell.
But it's just anxiety. It's a freak out fake-out: nothing bad medically is going on, but it's so easy to get caught out by your anxiety when it hits that panic attack space. And they can come out of the blue sometimes, particularly the first time it happens.
So, what do you do? When you've had a panic attack, it's easy to be so scared of it happening again. You need to get back in control so that you know how you would manage it if your anxiety flared up again. So recognise panic for what it is and be reassured! If you need to seek medical reassurance, then do that, get yourself checked out so you know there's nothing else going on that you need to worry about. And then don't let panic fool you! Learn to bail sooner: if your anxiety level is rising, learn how to recognise it and do something before it gets so big that it's become full-on panic. It's much easier to manage anxiety in the lower levels of that nought to 10 scale.
So practice stuff you can do to drop your anxiety and get back so you feel in control to stop it from continuing to grow. And in panic moments, the same sort of skills can help you to calm down: even when it's flared up and the worst is happening, there are things you can do to get back into control to calm your breathing back down, to drop that panic level and to get rid of those really scary and difficult physical sensations.
So here's three tips, three things that you can do in a panic moment.
Number one is something called grounding. It's like bringing yourself back to the present moment, bringing your focus out of the panic zone and back into a calmer space. So it's about focusing on things in the world around you that literally anchor you to that present moment and calm you down. So, one thing that is often really helpful is just stopping and listening and trying to name every sound you can hear, you know? Birds, someone coughing, the sound of a chair scraping in the next classroom. Or sometimes physical sensations help people. So finding something that's really soft that you can stroke, maybe a blanket or something you can keep with you, or a ribbon you can tickle your finger with. Some people find a rubber band on a wrist really helps. Or scents, so a smell that you really like that makes you feel calm or maybe you associate with home and a calm space. So, that's grounding.
Number two then is about breathing. And there's a whole host of exercises you can do that calm your breathing down. So do go Google it, look on YouTube, look on TikTok. There's loads of different things. Try a few and find one that works for you. Basically, what it's about is trying to slow down your breathing out so it becomes more sustained. Think like you're blowing candles out on somebody really old's birthday cake. You need to (blows air slowly). It's gotta be a longer drawn out blow, not just one quick puff. 4-7-8 breathing is a specific technique that gets you to count each stage of a breath. So, you breathe in for four, then you hold it for seven and then you breathe out for eight. So it's about making sure that you're not breathing in for too long, that you are holding it for a little bit just to slow your breathing down. And then the breathe out is nice and slow and sustained. The actual numbers don't matter so much. What it's about is just slowing your breathing down. So anything that works for you is good.
But number three is just to be aware that some people find breathing exercises really hard. Quite a lot of people find that focusing too much on your breathing actually makes them feel more anxious or more aware and actually isn't helpful, particularly in panic moments.
So here's a better suggestion: many people find humming works better. Because when you hum a tune, you have to breathe well to sustain the note. So find a favourite song or a track that you love and put it on your phone or make sure you've got it ready on Spotify. And what you can do in moments that you feel anxious is just find a quiet corner, get your headphones, put it on, and if you can, if you're somewhere you can't be heard, you can hum along to it or sing the words if you like the words, singing works as well.
But the more you practice doing that in a calm space, the more your mind starts to associate that tune with feeling calmer as well. So eventually, the minute you put it on it will help you feel calm, even if you can't do the humming, to help you with the breathing stuff as well. So put it on, block out the world for a moment and watch your anxiety drop.
But in all these things, remember, you don't learn to swim in the moment that you're drowning! So practice whatever you're going to learn to manage anxiety in quieter moments when you're somewhere you feel safe when you won't be interrupted. And then gradually, you'll get more able to use them in the moments when you are out and about and feeling anxious.
But let's also be aware, you know? Anxiety is tough and it's powerful and it can flare up really fast, and sometimes we all need extra help. So how do you know if you or a mate needs some extra support?
So if anxiety is starting to feel like it controls you instead of the other way round. If it's limiting your life. If you're having difficult symptoms, like panic attacks. Or if it's stopping you from doing something, like sleeping or eating, or just having fun. Or if it's gone on for a really long time and it's not getting any better or if it's getting worse, then do get some support.
And the best thing to do is to talk to your GP about it, who might be able to recommend someone you can go and talk to, to get some help with managing it. Or they might also be able to prescribe a medication that helps to drop anxiety to get you through a challenging season. And they can help to support you wherever you go from now as you're working through your anxiety, so you don't feel like you're managing it on your own.
So if that's you or a friend, think about who could you talk to? Mum or dad or another adult at home or someone in school, to help you to get that extra support.
And last of all, don't be alarmed by anxiety. You know, sometimes it feels like it comes from nowhere and just takes over control. But anxiety can be a bit like walking past a house and there's all these signs that say, 'Beware of the dog!', 'Danger: big dog!' and 'This dog will eat you!' and you can hear barking and it's really scary. But if you plucked up the courage just to peep over the fence, what you'd see is one of those dead little dogs that's smaller than my cat and actually, a complete doddle to deal with! So anxiety holds its power because it gets you scared, it gets you running and it stops you from facing up to it.
Everything is scary when you're running away: turning and facing it, challenging it, you often find anxiety evaporates much quicker than you think it will. It often reveals it's much less scary than it actually feels.