The short breaths commence and through them I can feel the heat on my chest rising up my neck. It feels as though time stops while I try to break free of the non-existent but completely real feeling of suffocation. The duration of the episode is as unknown as when it will come again, and when it takes root, it’s tough to loosen it.
Panic. Anxiety. Worry. If you’re among the lucky who can conquer life without one of these words wiggling in, I envy you. For me, they are baked into my DNA and started young when I would fret over an upcoming test in school (yes, I was THAT kid). They have made themselves known in my life when deadlines at work hover over me, and they like to show up just when I think I’ve got my life together, only to remind me that as together I feel, I will always need God to be my glue.
While it can be finicky and unpredictable when it occurs, one thing is for certain… I’ve found that if I can bring with me the tools I’ve collected over the years, I can better manage when they show up. In hopes that I can help you add some tools into your toolkit, here’s a list of some of my “tried and trues” for you to consider. Of course I’m not an expert, just an expert in what works for me. And since living in perspective ranks top on my priority list, I’ve made a pact with myself that when I feel myself coming loose, I do everything possible to put my life back into perspective.
Stephanie’s Panic Pausing Toolkit
Breathe. I know, I know. A simple, known truth but one that is too important to not mention. If there is anything that can help you regain control when you feel like your life is spiraling out of it, it’s taking control of one small thing at a time, and for me that starts with my breath. I may not be able to control the situation or other’s reactions or responses. But, as I assess and redefine what I have the power to impact in a stressful situation, I start by getting my body in the best shape it can be to focus.
I take a deep breath in and a long exhale out. I make my breath purposeful, consciously executing something that we do so often unconsciously. As I do this, I take a moment to focus less on the stressful situation and more on the tangible world around me. I heighten all my senses, turning on that which my body usually takes for granted. I make myself aware of where I’m sitting, the smells of my surroundings, and the sounds that are naturally occurring that I may have previously overlooked.
These simple, basic breaths are anything but simple for me. They become my sounding board in rationalizing the quantity of worry that the situation at hand deserves. When I center myself by focusing my breath, I put life in perspective. I realize and appreciate matters most, and many times it has very little to do with the anxiety of the current situation. Because, let’s be honest, the world will continue no matter the outcome of the situation. While you can’t overlook it or neglect what may cause you worry, when you put in perspective how minimal it may be to your overall life, you may be able to put yourself at a little more ease while you tackle it.
Live in a “Worst-Case” scenario world. I bet you wouldn’t have expected this in my panic pausing list, at least not if you know me at all. As a positive outlook kind-of-gal, thinking about things in the worst-case-kind-of-way may be counterintuitive to what you would think. Well, let me shatter your expectations of me – I am not a typical “rainbows and butterflies” kind of person. Sure, I love the beauty of a rainbow, but I don’t ignore that it took some hardworking rain to achieve it. And butterflies I adore, but I am fully aware of the purposeful transformation that the caterpillar went through to achieve such beauty. Neither happened out of chance. Both are meaningful, and both are the outcome of tough situations.
Recently, I found myself underwater from worry about a situation that my oldest son is facing. Kids are mean, but I didn’t expect to have to prep my son for their level of meanness in first grade. At his age, his biggest worry should be memorizing his spelling words and, yet, I recently found myself helping him build his skillset to include coping mechanisms for dealing with mean kids.
When his behavior started to change, I knew something wasn’t just right. I pulled him aside one evening and after a little coaxing, he spilled the beans and told me everything about how he had been being treated. The only caveat was that I kept it confidential. What is a momma to do when that’s the prerequisite to sharing deep, dark secrets? Well, I can tell you that the first thing I did was BREATHE!
For a few days, I kept this close, knowing that the severity of the meanness wasn’t putting his life in danger. I needed to think. I needed to strategize. I needed to figure out my plan. I needed to think of the worst-case scenario. And that I did. In fact, I did worst-case scenario thinking on both side – what would happen if I never told anyone and what would happen if I did and he found out. After weighing the consequences, I opted to have a confidential conversation with his teacher, and together we are cautiously doing what we can behind the scenes to set him up to steer clear of the meanness while I can prep him from within to handle situations like these in the future.
I find when I take the time to think about the worst possible outcome, I realize that if it were to happen it may really not be as bad as I originally thought. What is the worst thing that could happen if you stand up for a situation at work that you believe in but your boss doesn’t? Maybe you will be ostracized or requested to be off the project, or worst, maybe it will lead to you losing your job. Not something anyone wants to think about, but in doing so, maybe you realize that it’s time to look for a new job anyway. What is the worst thing that could happen if you take a risk and start a business you’ve always dreamed of? Failure is the first thing that comes to mind I’m sure. But let’s be real, even if your business doesn’t succeed doesn’t mean that you haven’t!
When you find yourself in the depths of worry, schedule a conversation with yourself and assess your worst-case scenarios. I’ll bet that they are likely not as bad as you originally thought!
Find an outlet. Are you one of those people who clam up when you feel anxiety creeping in? Do you shut down until your stress tank is on the verge of explosion, and at that point, you know you need to go into hiding for fear that you will take out your stress on the wrong person. Or are you someone who attempts to ignore the panic, as if it isn’t real. It’s bringing in its luggage, making you its new home, but you think if you ignore it, it will go away.
Maybe you are on one of these extremes or somewhere in the middle. No matter how you feel about anxiety, for me I’ve realized that if I don’t find an outlet to constructively work through the situation, I ma explode, or crumble, or become unhinged. Part of your toolkit should include identifying your outlets so that when your brain is amuck, you have a place or two to go!
I have several “go-to” outlets and depending upon my level of panic, I will use each independently or all of them collectively. First in my line of defense is a bath. There is something about the extreme heat surrounding me that helps me feel comforted. As my skin turns red from the water’s temperature, I find the tenseness within my muscles washing away. As my body relaxes, I take in several breaths and begin the worst-case scenario conversation in my head to work through the topic at hand (see how they all intertwine?!).
If a bath doesn’t do the trick, I find a creative outlet. For those of you who don’t think you are creative, I believe that creativity comes in all shapes and sizes. For me, I like to gather some flowers or burlap and wreath-make. Or I open my computer and write. But you may find that your creative energy comes in playing a basketball game or building a massive castle of Legos with the kids. Creativity may be found in gardening or in creating a cocktail (don’t worry, I don’t judge!). Whatever it is, know what sparks the creative parts of your brain and use them in times like these for when your creative energy is plugged in, you may just find that you get creative at identifying solutions to your current concerns.
If I find that I’m not capable of figuring things out alone, that’s when I call in the big dogs… a close friend. An outlet to you may be a person – someone that you can plug into and recharge. Someone who loves you for your brokenness and has the ability to listen in ways no one else can. Don’t be afraid to phone a friend, for they just may be the sounding board you need.
Focus only on what is within your span of control. For me, the source of most anxiety comes when what I think is important is questioned. Maybe I’m impacted by how I think others see me, how I perceive I’m supposed to find success, what I expect to happen that doesn’t. What is the one thing in common among each? My perceived control.
Can I control what others think of me? How I find success? How everything happens? You may say yes to some of these questions, but when you get down to it, you really can’t. In fact, your span of control is a lot more limited than you originally think. While you can control what you wear, what you say, and who you interact with, you have no ability to directly control how someone thinks about each. While you can control your work ethic, your education, and your persistence, you can’t control if you get the promotion, if you win the contest, and if you have the innate skillset to achieve what you think you’re supposed to. You can save every penny for the new house only for it to catch flames when you walk in. You can leave early to get to work on time only to get stuck in traffic after a wreck.
Your span of control is much smaller than you originally may think. I used to think that I could control me and only me, so if I wanted people to think highly of me, I’d work all hours to impact their opinions. But then my body gave out. I would find myself sick and unable to control my ability to crank out work at the capacity I wanted to. In times like that, I realized that the only thing I can control is my reactions and my responses to the deck of cards life deals me.
I can’t control that my son has already encountered mean kids in school, but I can control how I respond and help him through it. I can’t control being impacted by corporate layoffs, but I can use my new-found freedom to take a risk and try a new direction I’ve always dreamed of. I can’t control how someone thinks of me, but I can control how I let that person’s opinion of me impact my opinion of myself. When you give up thinking you can control everything and you focus on only controlling one thing – YOU – then you realize that the situation that caused your life to unravel really wasn’t the situation at all, but your reaction to it.
Stress is inevitable. Panic will show up whether you welcome it or not. Anxiety is sure to be something you will feel at least once in your life. You can’t run from it. You can’t hide from it. But you can work through it. Remember to breathe. Consider the worst-case scenario – in a positive, constructive kind of way. Find a creative outlet and use it. And always remember where your control lies.