Justine was around 28 years old when she experienced her first anxiety attack. She had difficulty breathing, her head began to hurt, and suddenly she lost all sensation in her left arm. She thought she was having a heart attack. She asked her family to take her to the emergency room immediately, where they ran tests, checked her vitals, and sent her home with an antacid. They told her it was an effect of an acid reflux.
Yasmin, a 21 year old student, had similar symptoms that began to surface in October of 2017. Her chest was tight, her breathing was short and heavy, and the muscles along her spine started to experience chronic pain. She went to the emergency room twice only to be told that she needed to take a pain killer. There was nothing else that they could do for her after checking all vitals and running a few tests.
When Mia was in her early 20's, she would find herself frozen, unable to move her body and would remain catatonic for long periods of time. She would be carried into the emergency room each time, have the same tests run and vitals checked, only to be sent home with the typical answer, "nothing's wrong with you, you're completely fine. Just get some rest".
All three cases took their needs to the emergency room when they each felt like their symptoms could have been fatal, and yet they got a variety of responses from acid reflux to stress that told them, "jeez, you totally over reacted". While it was obvious to me as a practitioner that these were symptoms of anxiety, it made me wonder what our health system and its practitioners were learning about mental issues and how to address them appropriately. Why wasn't a psychiatrist part of the assessing team?, I wondered. Wouldn't they have been able to point these out? More importantly, why aren't psychs put on emergency duty?
In the last 5 or 6 years, it has become obvious to many that the issue of mental health in our country lacks way more support that we realize. With the rise of anxiety, depression, and worse, suicide, in our country today, it is apparent that the work of psychiatry and psychology are even more important in the health care setting. How can we better train our practitioners to look for the signs and symptoms that will help individuals take concrete steps to protecting their mental health? Instead of cancelling out their experience or downplaying it?
What is anxiety?
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” This feeling can often make us react in one of two ways - fight or fly - as a survival instinct we learned from our ancestors. A severe feeling of anxiety, however, can cause the brain and the body to malfunction. These physical changes are what can lead to an anxiety or panic attack. Signs of an attack often come in the form of:
- shortness of breath
- blurred vision
- a heavy chest
- feeling pins and needles in your hands / feet / head
- light headedness
- chest pain (wherein a heart attack has been ruled out)
- muscle pains
- feeling frozen, unable to move (catatonic)
What kinds of people experience anxiety?
Honestly, anybody. I personally believe that an anxiety attack is the body's way of sending you a signal. We tend to neglect what we do to the body with the lifestyle that we keep, the problems that we involve ourselves in, and the failure to confront our own truths. And when we repress or deny this, it begins to really take its toll on the body.
Do you think you might have had an anxiety attack that you may not have immediately recognized? What do you think it was trying to tell you?
What can you do when you experience an anxiety attack?
1) If you have a doctor you can trust, go and see them. Hopefully they will be able to refer you to a psychiatrist who will be able to prescribe the proper anxiolitic or treatments to help you.
2) You can also try acudetox. An 5-point ear acupuncture protocol that has been proven to help symptoms of anxiety as well as addressing psycho-emotional issues such as fear, anger, and grief.
3) In the moment of the attack, take a moment to notice and try to take in more air or try this breathing exercise to balance your breath:
- Cover your right nostril and inhale slowly through your left
- Cover your left nostril and exhale slowly through your right
- Repeat this sequence 11 times
The exercise is said to balance your lung capacity as well as your brains, supplying an equal amount of oxygen around the body.
When we are anxious or when we go into panic mode, our muscles and our blood vessels tend to contract. This makes it harder for blood and oxygen to flow through us properly. Sometimes this can lead to feelings of dizziness, a painful stomach, or loss of sensation in our limbs. This is why learning how to breathe through it is most important. So remember to BREATHE.
4) Try focusing on a mantra to help you through it. Pick an affirmation that you can whisper to yourself when you feel it rising. Maybe you can tell yourself that you are well, you are safe, and you are protected. Or you can simply say, all will be well, as you breathe into the space that you are in.
Try it and see how you feel.
Feel free to reach out if you'd like to work through this together. Sometimes, getting to the bottom of things is not as easy when we try to tackle it on our own. If you have questions or want to set up a session, please do write to email@example.com.