How I cope with panic attacks

Illustration by Tonesha Yazzie

Lightning strikes. Chills shoot up my spine, my shoulders become tense, my heart starts pounding and my stomach is in knots.

Then comes the thunder. My mind reacts. I suddenly feel an impending sense of doom as my thoughts are quickly overwhelmed by fear.

“I’m not OK,” I say to my girlfriend. She immediately tells me to take slow, deep breaths. It doesn’t help. Nothing seems to help. I just want it to stop.

I have suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks since I was a child. For most people, anxiety is tethered to real-world experiences. Mine seems to come and go with little reason.

After many exhausting and difficult experiences with panic attacks, I began to notice something — just as lightning warns of the coming thunder, my physical body warns me of an impending panic attack.

I discovered that being mindful of my physical body allowed me to prevent the panic attack well before it occurred. If you struggle with panic attacks, anxiety or even stress, I recommend you try the same.

About 10 times a day, stop whatever you are doing, take deep breaths and allow yourself to focus on any physical sensations you are feeling. Are your shoulders tense? Is your heart racing?

If you are having trouble doing this, I recommend initially focusing on your breathing before shifting your focus outward to the rest of your body.

If you feel any sensations associated with anxiety, stress or a panic attack, do something to calm yourself. This part will look different for everyone. My favorite techniques include diaphragmatic breathing, a short and intense exercise, and taking a hot shower.

Find what works. I found that what you do is not important as long as you are taking preventative action. By identifying a problem and taking positive measures to fix it, you are communicating with your body. Maintaining this communication periodically is key.

I used to find myself wishing there was a fix-all that would take my anxiety away forever. Years of struggle taught me that wishing it away is a waste of time – take action. Practicing daily body checks and maintaining healthy habits drastically improved my life.

The brain is just one of many intricate functions of the body. The rest of the body speaks too. You just need to listen to it and respond.