Anxiety is a complicated set of feelings. Most of us have been anxious at least once in our lives – either before giving an exam, before an interview, or before meeting our special someone to make a big decision – the feeling of uncertainty and fear is something we all have experienced. This is precisely what anxiety is – the fear of the unknown. However, a lot of these instances are often short-lived, and so is the fear regarding it.
A lot of people out there have anxiety that does not seem to go away easily. Some instances, events, habits, and moments cause the same fear of the unknown; the fear can scale very high, causing a bodily reaction to it. When this happens regularly or only during a particular instance, it is called an anxiety disorder, because it has the ability to alter a person’s way of life. The reaction to such instances often comes in the form of anxiety attacks.
What Is an Anxiety Attack?
In simple words, an anxiety attack is a response to the continuous feelings of fear in one’s mind. Let us understand this with an example.
Scenario A – before going in for a job interview, a person can have ‘butterflies’ in his stomach because he is nervous about acing his interview and impressing his boss. He is probably biting his nails or tapping his foot uncontrollably. In this situation, there is a chance that he has thought about a possible worst case scenario – “worse comes to worst, I will tank this interview and not get the job.” Telling himself about the worst case scenario is a practical way of him not putting pressure on himself and calming his nerves. This is how usual anxiety works.
Scenario B – before going in for a job interview, a person feels the ‘butterflies’ but they seem to be bothering him. He is thinking about how he had messed up in his last interview, and immediately concludes that he did not get the job because he didn’t speak properly or that he didn’t dress smart enough. He starts to think about how he will mess up this interview because he didn’t read up enough, or that he didn’t cut his hair beforehand and that will make him look shabby. Instead of the worst case scenario being that he won’t get the job, his mind will continuously tell him this – “how will you ever get a good job if you can’t even remember to cut your hair on time? You don’t know anything about the company you are interviewing for. They will know you are not passionate enough. You don’t have more job interviews lined up. You will remain unemployed, and this is because you are lazy and incompetent.” This continuous thought process will likely end up in him feeling overwhelmed and confused, and add to his fear of not being able to function properly. This can result in a physical reaction, such as incessant crying, hyperventilation, feeling of dizziness, etc. This is the beginning of an anxiety attack.
Thus, we can see that anxiety attacks do not occur in a vacuum; they take place after a series of thoughts that are often backed up by some event or instance that has had an impact in our lives. The thing about anxiety attacks is that they tend to make a person spiral – and the only reason for this is the constant fear of the unknown and cooked-up scenarios in one’s mind. When unchecked, frequent anxiety attacks can be extremely harmful for a person, as they can lead to serious behavioural changes such as agoraphobia (which is a chronic fear of being in public spaces and around people), hypochondria, or depression.
How to Stop an Anxiety Attack Before or When It Is Occurring
Anxiety attacks can be scary and emotionally and physically draining; but there are a few techniques you can try to stop the attack from happening when you sense it, or reduce the impact of the anxiety attack when it is occurring. These techniques are called grounding techniques.
Grounding is a process of getting yourself out of the train of thought that can, or is giving you an anxiety attack, and bringing your focus back into the real world by using the physical act of ‘doing’ to shift focus.
Here are a few grounding techniques you can use when you’re having an anxiety attack:
1. Drink cold water.
This is a simple act, but it has a meaning to it. When drinking water, you are using your sense of touch to hold the glass or bottle, and feeling the coldness in your hand. Focus on how cold your hand feels as you touch the bottle. Next, by drinking the water, you are using your sense of taste. Thus, when gulping the water slowly, focus on how cold your mouth feels. This is a good grounding technique to follow especially before you feel the anxiety attack coming, because you are immediately re-positioning your mind by making it focus on something else.
2. Take three different kinds of uncooked dals in a plate, and begin separating them.
Just as you feel that you are going to spiral, head to your kitchen and pour three different raw dals in a big plate. After that, sit down, look at the plate and slowly start separating the three dals in different corners of the plate. This technique takes your focus away from the spiralling thoughts, and makes use of your senses of touch and sight. You can do this exercise with anything that has multiple colours, like beads and grains.
3. Practice properly timed breathing.
We are usually asked to breathe when we start getting feelings of nervousness or stress, because breathing is a great grounding technique. In case of anxiety attacks, try this: take a deep breath in and hold it for 5 seconds without fail, and breathe out for 7 seconds. Try maintaining a proper count for these breathing exercises, because that is the most effective way to streamline your breathing. Box breathing is an effective technique where you take your breath in for four seconds, hold it in for four seconds, and let it out for four seconds. Your focus will immediately go on counting the seconds, which will make the anxiety subside.
4. Look around the room you are in, and focus on colours/objects.
The next time you feel you are spiraling, stop for a second and look around in your room. Spot any object – a lamp, a book, a bottle – and name it loudly. Keep doing that for each object you find. If you are out, mouth the names to yourself, but make sure to actually say them by moving your mouth. By identifying the obejcts, you are shifting your focus from anxious thoughts to your sense of sight; by naming them, you are coming back into the physical reality you drifted away from by using your muscles to move your mouth. You can try changing the game by spotting all objects that have a similar colour and naming them, or simply naming the colours of the objects you see. The key here is to utilize your sight and muscles to get a grip on yourself.
5. Keep humming.
The moment you feel your mind is overwhelmed with thoughts, hum a song you like. You need not sing it out loud; simply singing the tune from start to finish can help. Here, you are using your voice and your hearing to come back into your physical reality.
6. Do a little stretch.
This is a small act that can benefit you in moments where you can’t do the things mentioned above, like if you’re at work or sitting at your desk. Just get up, notice your feet touching the floor, lift your arms up, and bend any way you are comfortable. The very act of using your body is a great way to shift away from anxiety inducing thoughts, and grounding yourself in reality.
7. Touch objects near you.
Hold your bottle in your hand and observe it. Pay attention to its nooks and crannies, its colour and shape.
Keep it down. Then, pick up your phone (but don’t use it). Observe its colour and how the light reflects on it. Touch your arm and feel it. Touch your legs. Touch your pants and feel the material; rub your palms together and feel the heat they produce. Feel the rug under your feet. The idea is to remind yourself of your physical existence that lies outside of your thought process. Doing so will shift focus, and this is why it is considered a great grounding technique.
By now, you would have understood the importance of grounding techniques to control anxiety attacks – they push you out of your fear of the unknown so you can come back to reality and not concentrate on self-destructive thoughts. Anxiety attacks are brutal and make one feel like there is no solution. While we have a list of temporary solutions to curb and control anxiety attacks, we advise you to see a psychotherapist if the attacks are frequent. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health; it’s important to take care of it in order to be a well-functioning individual.