What to do when you feel anxiety creep and how to stop an attack before it gains momentum—with assistance from Enya
Hello, anxiety. I know you are there. You’re like an old friend come to see me again. You have been dormant for some time. I want to sleep but you do not want me to sleep. You want my chest heavy, my breath thick and shallow—suffocating. I will acknowledge you, but you will not nestle in my thoughts as my bedmate. Tonight, even if only an hour, I will sleep.
ONE O’CLOCK A.M., MAY 3, 2016—Everyone is sound asleep and has been for hours. I am awake, laying in bed, a panic attack attempting with all its might to overcome me. I stare into the darkness of the room, unable to sleep as I face off against my nemesis, yet companion, who walks with me in this life, anxiety.
My old friend and that familiar feeling he creates occupying my chest and thoughts, my old bedmate of dread. The one who, with two hands, wrapped his long fingers around my neck and choked out my breath as a child as I woke in the middle of the night suffering from the same recurring night terror over and over. That of the electrified demon who stared me dead in the eyes and smiled, and then glanced over into my sister’s room and then back at me, as I bunched myself up in the corner of my bed against the wall, terrified.
The big, bad wolf has returned. He has only knocked on my door three times in the past ten months, and the attacks have all been relatively minor compared to what I used to experience before, as I battled this once demon of dread, alone, much like the small child who slinked into the corner of his bedroom.
I am no longer a child. I am no longer powerless. I know now how to fight back.
How to Treat an Oncoming Anxiety Attack
Step 1: Ease anxiety with meditation and mindfulness
Calm the body and mind
Through the practice of mindfulness, I am able to recognize the fear as it begins to arise in my chest and head it off before it overtakes me completely. I haven’t always been able to do this. A year ago, my lungs would have been on ice and I would be convinced my heart was going to explode out of my chest.
I no longer try to suppress or ignore the fear or anxiety — or whatever the human emotion may be. I acknowledge it for what it is. Hello, fear. Hello, anxiety. I know you are there. I let it speak to me, and then I comfort it.
Compost was once rotting vegetables and now it nurtures my garden.
A moment of meditation eases the tightness. It clears away the intrusive thoughts that beg for me to believe that I cannot breathe, that my lungs will fail me as I sleep, that I will suffocate.
A meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Breathing in, I calm
my body and mind.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the
I know this
is the only moment.
There is so much talking in our world. So much noise. Sometimes, more oftentimes than not, we just need to listen. Listen to our own bodies, our own minds. Maybe if we listen it will stop screaming for our attention. We can listen without inspiring a negative force to grow, without watering its seed. We can listen without judgment, without taking action.
We can nurture by listening alone.
- What is it you want me to know?
- What are you trying to tell me?
I am listening.
To learn more about how to incorporate mindfulness into your life, read “Getting Started with Mindfulness” from Mindful.org. They have put together quite a nice guide for beginners new to mindfulness. Contents include:
- What is mindfulness?
- How do I practice mindfulness and meditation?
- What are the benefits of meditation?
- Mindfulness practices for every day
- Common questions about mindfulness
- Debunking the myths of mindfulness
- Further reading on meditation
Step 2: Music therapy for anxiety
Enya to the rescue
I have stared into the black. I have closed my eyes. I have meditated. Yet my friend remains by my side. Tonight he will fight.
In a 2013 study on the effects of patient-directed music intervention on anxiety and sedative exposure in critically ill patients receiving ventilator support, undertaken at five hospitals in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, area, 373 patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) were assessed daily for anxiety and the need for sedatives to treat their pain. Patients who listened to music reported thirty-seven percent less anxiety than their controlled counterparts. The same patients reporting less anxiety symptoms received thirty-six percent less sedative medication as well.
Half my life ago I had a friend say to me, “You need to listen to some Enya.” Exact quote. She said it in a somewhat joking manner, but as we all know, half joking implies more than a grain of truth.
Perhaps she sensed my anxiety long before me.
I have to admit, during moments such as this, listening to the song “Only Time” by Enya on repeat appears to be a form of kryptonite for my anxiety. Who knew something as fiendish as severe anxiety could be hugged into submission by gentle Enya.
I feel my breath relax and find its origin in my belly again, where it should be. Yet my friend still lingers. He is not as strong as he was before, but he is not down for the count.
Read more on how music can reduce anxiety
Curtin, Melanie. “Neuroscience Says Listening to This Song Reduces Anxiety by Up to 65 Percent.” Inc., 26 Oct. 2016.
Popova, Maria. “Oliver Sacks on 9/11 and the Paradoxical Power of Music to Bring Solace by Making Room for Our Pain.” Brain Pickings, 11 Sept. 2015.
Step 3: Ease anxiety and panic by writing
Write it out
Is writing the ultimate tried and true self help mechanism for managing anxiety? For me it is. And I’m not alone. In “Journaling: A Great Tool For Coping With Anxiety,” Elizabeth Scott, M.S., writes:
One of the ways that journaling can relieve stress is by helping you work through your anxious feelings. This is because feelings of anxiety can lead to stress and rumination when left unchecked, but some of the roots of your anxiety can be minimized through a little-focused examination. Journaling can be a powerful tool for examining and shifting thoughts from anxious and ruminative to empowered and action-oriented.
What are morning pages? As the originator Julia Cameron describes of morning pages:
“Morning pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do morning pages. They are not high art. They aren’t even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind.”
Think of it as a brain dump before your coffee kicks in. And if you think three pages is too much, that’s okay. Try fifteen minutes instead. Even if you can’t think of anything when you start, just put pen to paper and begin. There’s a voice in your head that will eventually wake up and tell you morning pages are stupid. Write until he wakes up. He usually hits the snooze three times. Here’s an example of one of my morning pages extracted from an old notebook in my workshop:
I have no idea what to write. I have no idea what to write. I have no idea what to write. The coffee smells good. I have no idea what to write. I have no idea what to write. Add baking soda to the grocery list. Set up meeting with [name withheld] to discuss [details withheld]. Send email to [name withheld]. Coffee is ready. Mental note to meditate during the day. I feel overwhelmed. I need a few days off. But if I take time off, I’ll just come back to an inbox explosion.
While I no longer keep morning pages, it was a very important practice early on in helping understand my anxiety. What I keep now is more or less all day pages. I do still write constantly throughout the day. The bulk of this writing is in the form of notes, tasks, and reminders—anything and everything that creates a feedback loop in my brain that is reminding me, quite literally, of what I need to do and is trying its hardest to escape. If you’ve ever read Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen, you’ll quickly realize that David Allen is likely an apparent sufferer of anxiety and the feedback loop.
If you’re new to morning pages, your first stop should be Julia Cameron. Your second stop should be Chris Winfield’s post “These 3 Pages Might be Your Key to a Clearer Mind, Better Ideas and Less Anxiety,” which breaks down some of the benefits morning pages has had on his daily life.
Creative writing, or writing creatively
It doesn’t have to be fiction
To quote the novelist Graham Greene, “Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherit in a human situation.”
William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, once said of Greene: “Graham Greene [was] the ultimate twentieth-century chronicler of consciousness and anxiety.”
Perhaps more than any activity, writing is my anti-anxiety medication. Writing is how I make sense of the world within me and the world outside of me.
Sometimes I wonder if my arch enemy Anxiety is even my nemesis at all.
“Wake up,” he says. “It is time to create. Only I can create the detail in the stories you seek to write. It is I who activates the neurons latent inside you.”
I grab my laptop from my desk and first walk into my son’s room and look down at him as he sleeps peacefully. His stomach rises and falls with his relaxed breath. I walk into my daughter’s room and watch her dream, then kiss her forehead. She is of the age now where I have to steal my kisses if I expect to meet my weekly quota.
Quietly, I retreat downstairs and set up shop beside my dog who lays on the seat at the bay window, her breath rising and falling from her belly much like my son’s. She “yoga breathes,” as my wife says. Her jowls flap and a whistle escapes. Her paw moves as she dreams of squirrels and UPS men.
It is dark throughout the house except the screen that is lit as I type this. Writing calms me. Being honest frees me and strips away the solitary confinement of it all.
It may seem odd to some that I am public about my anxiety, but I am okay with that. I am not embarrassed any more. I do not resign myself to the shadows any longer. I suffer from anxiety. But I am no longer losing. I am managing.
The cursor blinks and the letters form into words, and I feel my anxiety subside completely.
Goodnight anxiety, goodnight fear.
 I actually wrote a 6,500 word essay on what meditation has done for me (and my anxiety) that is sitting on my hard drive — but then I realized if I post a 6,500 word blog post, only about three people will read it all. Okay, two people, and one of those people is me because I’ll be searching for typos and grammatical errors; so, I am going to break it into bite-sized chunks and share it with you that way, and then link it to one master post in my Overcoming Anxiety series.