Your head is spinning. You can’t breathe. Your chest feels like it will explode. You are sure you are having a heart attack. You are burning up. You are freezing. Throwing up would be a welcome distraction.
Sound familiar? No, you are not dying. Say hello to anxiety.
Sudden overwhelming fear, heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, a sense of choking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, chills or hot flashes are all the classic symptoms of an anxiety attack, but what if your anxiety does not fit into that tidy box of symptoms?
Anxiety is like all mental illness—one size does not fit all. Anxiety is not an everyday concern for me, but I become anxious occasionally. And although I have had anxiety attacks with the classic symptoms, my anxiety normally presents differently.
The Morning from Hell
This morning I acted worse than my eight-year-old over something as inconsequential as choosing a book for her daily reading time.
I realized Ava forgot her library book at school. Now I was scrambling for a book for her to read. Crap.
I have a stack of unread books I keep on the end table for this very reason. I instructed her to choose a book because “we” would read soon.
Did she choose a book out of that stack? Nope. Instead, she picked a book off of her very messy bookshelf at a reading level too advanced for her. Crap. Crap. Crap.
Now I am in panic mode because my daughter refuses to pick a book out of the pile because there are none she wants to read that isn’t embarrassing. The minutes are ticking by. The language in my head is deteriorating quickly. Saying crap isn’t as rewarding now.
She still hasn’t chosen a book. If this keeps up, we won’t even have the time needed to complete reading “our” book.
I explode. I vomit the expletives in my head out of my mouth. Truly, I am the worst mom ever. I swat my daughter on her bottom hard.
It feels like an hour has elapsed, but really it is more like five minutes. My daughter picks a book and reads it quickly, with time to spare. Of course.
Welcome to My Anxiety Attack
That, my friends, is an anxiety attack. At least, it is my version of one. I am a control freak. I have a plan with bullet points. Do you know what I mean?
Disruptions are not welcome in my world. Disturbances to my regimented routine lead to an extreme overreaction.
When I become anxious, I do not present with classic symptoms. I become irritable and angry. And when I mean angry—think rage—not just a little mad. I am out of control. I am on the outside looking in on my behavior.
My brain shuts off. I scream and I curse. I direct my extreme anger at the people I love the most.
Once the anxiety attack is over and I separate myself from the fear causing the irritability and anger, I am mortified. Am I alone in this? I can’t be the only person whose anxiety presents this way.
There has to be a way to get through an anxiety attack without verbally destroying the people you love most.
Here are four practical tools to use when anxiety hits:
1. Give yourself a timeout.
Go into another room and collect yourself. Breathe, pray, scream at the walls—whatever works. What is important is that you separate yourself from the person who is the recipient of your anxiety-fueled outburst.
A timeout might work differently for you. When I am in full-blown anxiety attack mode, a quiet room rarely quiets my mind. The noise in my head is deafening, so it is best that I distract myself another way. Going for a walk or a drive with loud music on usually does the trick. It helps me change my focus and settle down.
What if there is nowhere to go? What if you are alone with the person who fueled your anxiety and is now on the receiving end of your rage? Close your eyes and breathe deeply until your heartbeat slows down. Remind yourself that God hears the prayers you can’t even put into words:
“So too the [Holy] Spirit comes to our aid and bears us up in our weakness; for we do not know what prayer to offer nor how to offer it worthily as we ought, but the Spirit Himself goes to meet our supplication and pleads in our behalf with unspeakable yearnings and groanings too deep for utterance” (Romans 8:26 AMPC).
2. Identify the emotion.
While you are in your self-imposed timeout, in whatever form it takes, take a moment to identify the emotion that is triggering your anxiety attack. Do you feel out of control? Do you feel stressed? Do you feel rushed or overwhelmed?
After having outbursts repeatedly during the morning rush or homework time, I realized fear fuels my anxiety. I am perpetually in a hurry and fearful I won’t be able to check everything off my to-do list. When I am focused on that fear, I can’t see anything else, and mundane tasks that I have to complete have a heightened sense of urgency in my mind.
Identifying the emotion is crucial because the next time you find yourself anxious and feeling the same emotion, you are better prepared to deal with it. You can have a plan in place for when your emotions get the best of you. You can learn what helps you change your focus and rechannel your energy.
3. Create a teachable moment.
Use these lapses in behavior as teachable moments. When I have an anxiety attack and I direct my bad behavior at my daughter, I am quick to admit my wrongdoing, apologize and ask for forgiveness. It shows my daughter that adults make mistakes and need forgiveness and restoration too.
This doesn’t just apply to your children. You should be quick to apologize to anyone you offend—your spouse, your parent, friend, or even a stranger. It is a lesson in humility, and by no means is it easy to admit that your anxiety got the best of you, but you have to acknowledge the bad behavior before you can change it.
4. Be gentle with yourself.
Forgive yourself for being human. We all fall short and need mercy and grace. The good news is we serve a God who wants to welcome us back into the fold even when anxiety hits and destructive behavior rules the day.
“So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (Hebrews 4:16 NLT).
Remember, each day is a new beginning and a chance to get it right. Learning how to navigate an anxiety attack is a matter of trial and error and learning what works specifically for you.
We are all human. We all have days when our emotions get the best of us, and anxiety rules the day. Find which strategies work best for you and implement a plan for weathering anxiety in a more productive way that doesn’t harm you or the ones you love.
How do your anxiety attacks present? What practical tools do you use during an anxiety attack? Share your answers in the comments.