On our campus, we have a tendency to wear our stress as a badge of honor. “I had three midterms on the same day,” “I didn’t get ANY sleep last night” and “I’m having a mental breakdown” are the kinds of conversations with which Case Western Reserve University students are quite familiar. We know this type of stress is unhealthy, and yet we’ve normalized it. We may feel that because everyone around us is stressed, it’s OK for us to also be chronically stressed or sleep-deprived; we may even feel that if we aren’t pulling all-nighters once a week just to finish our homework, we aren’t pushing ourselves hard enough. But in this microcosm of overachievement fever dreams, how can we know when “hard enough” is too hard? Well, that’s the problem with this type of normalized stress: you don’t know when you’ve hit your breaking point until you’re in the middle of a full-blown panic attack.
Even though you may be well aware that you are stressed, panic is not normal stress. Panic is a sudden, intense and disproportionate reaction to the situation. Therefore, panic attacks can occur without warning; you may feel like there is suddenly an invisible weight on your chest preventing you from breathing, you may start to sweat, you may feel nauseated even if you haven’t eaten anything, your heart may start racing, you may start trembling, you may feel numb, dizzy or weak. Knowing and understanding the physical signs of a panic attack will help you identify when you’re having one, and this is the first step to getting through one. The key is that these symptoms occur suddenly and simultaneously; you don’t know when you’ve hit your breaking point until you’ve passed it.
Next, you need to realize that anxiety cannot hurt you. You will survive this. I know this may sound melodramatic, but in the moment, your world stops, and with it stops your rational thought. Therefore, I suggest repeating something like “I will get through this.”
This brings me to my next strategy: repeat a mantra, something grounding and calming. This can be anything from the universal “water off a duck’s back” to a funny inside joke, as long as the mantra has meaning to you, it works.
You’re also going to want to remember to breathe. Seriously, deep breaths. The most common relaxation breathing technique is known as diaphragmatic breathing. Here’s what you do: close your eyes, release your shoulders, put one hand on your stomach, breathe in for five seconds and as you do so, feel your breath fill up your entire chest. Hold that breath for two seconds, and then exhale for another five seconds. Repeat this at least five times, though you can do it as many times as you wish. Remember to breathe slowly and focus on each individual breath as it moves from your chest, up your body and out of your mouth. Yes, I know it’s tedious, but just do it, it will help.
Additionally, you can practice grounding. This is a therapeutic exercise in which you train your mind to focus on an inanimate object. Let’s say you’re sitting at your desk and you’re having a panic attack. You look to your left and you see a framed picture of your dog. This is what I want you to do: focus all of your attention on the frame; notice its texture and any designs that may be on the frame. What is the frame made out of? Is the frame shiny? What color is it? Again, this may seem tedious, but this exercise helps us refocus our thoughts. Oftentimes, part of what makes a panic attack so scary, and also exacerbates them, is that we feel like we are losing control. If we successfully ground our thoughts, we can regain control.
The next strategy is to allow yourself to sit with the anxiety and stress. Don’t move. If you get up and walk around, you are physically running away from the panic, and we want to overcome the panic, not run away from it. Instead, sit in it. Literally. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but think about it. After you’ve hiked up the Elephant Stairs in the middle of August, how do you feel? Out of breath, right? You’re sweating, you’re tired, you’re weak, all of the signs of a panic attack, but do you panic? No! Because you know that, eventually, your fatigue will pass. For now, you just need to rest. This is the same energy you should carry with you as you sit in your stress. You need to allow yourself time to regroup and recuperate. During a panic attack, your brain is running up the Elephant Stairs at full speed in cement shoes. Give yourself time to readjust and know that, yes, right now you may not be feeling so great, but with time, you will be ok.
Finally, drink some water for goodness sake! In fact, when was the last time you drank water, huh? Oh my gosh, are you serious? Hydrate or diedrate, it’s not that difficult!
Remember that stress is a normal part of life, but being stressed all the time is not, and being panicked could mean it’s time to pay a visit to University Health and Counseling Services.
If nobody has told you yet today, you’re doing a great job. I know things are difficult right now, but you’ve shown so much resilience pushing through it and I’m so proud of you. Keep on keeping on, I support you.