Paralyzing Anxiety: 5 Things You Can Do When It Attacks
Sitting paralyzed in the middle of an anxiety attack has got be the worst feeling in the world—I know from personal experience. To those who don't suffer from anxiety disorder, you should count yourself lucky.
For those who aren't so fortunate, here are five things you can do to "snap yourself" out of a paralyzing attack of anxiety and get moving again. These techniques work for me, and I hope they will for you, too.
The Good News About Paralyzing Anxiety Attacks
The good news about anxiety is that it's mostly a state of brain chemistry, and extreme brain states are relatively easy to change—IF you can take that first step to get moving!
How often do you experience paralyzing anxiety attacks?
1. Distract Yourself
Rumination is a core feature of anxiety—going over and over something without making any progress. It's like a car spinning its wheels on ice. Thinking too much during an attack of anxiety almost always makes it worse! Get your mind off it by:
- Watching a very emotional movie or TV show.
- Playing an absorbing video game.
- Mindlessly surfing the Internet. Sometimes the ritual of clicking through lots of websites is soothing for me.
- Reading a really good book. Anything that gets me out of my head and into someone else's is usually helpful.
2. Change Your Physical Body
A bad anxiety attack is a paralyzing feedback loop between the brain and the body's "fight or flight" response that's flashing "DANGER!" DANGER!" "DANGER!" There's no real danger, so switch off that response by:
- Dunking your face into ice cold water. This is my go-to technique when things are really bad. I fill up the kitchen sink with ice, add water, then dunk my whole head in and hold it there for 20 to 30 seconds. It sounds extreme, but it's amazing how well this works!
- Listening to very, VERY loud music. You can interrupt your brain's danger response via the auditory nerve. Put on your favorite music and turn it up, as loud as you can! I mean until the house shakes! 3 minutes of ear-splitting noise breaks anxiety paralysis incredibly well.
- Drinking something really nasty-tasting. You can probably tell this strategy shocks your nervous system via your physical senses. Sometimes a really horrible taste will break an anxiety attack for me when nothing else is working. Things I've tried include a cup of straight vinegar, a big gulp of lemon juice or a shot of very cheap vodka. Note: I do NOT advocate drinking as a solution to anxiety!
3. Take Opposite Action
Opposite action is a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) technique that basically means making yourself do the opposite of what you feel like doing. The idea is if you do the opposite of how you feel, your emotions will shift towards the opposite. This is an action step. Don't over-think this one!
- Go to the store. Suffering from agoraphobia? Make yourself drive to the store and spend 1 minute browsing the shelves as if you aren't anxious. Do it even if you're completely terrified. Leave after 1 minute and go get your favorite snack as a reward for your courage.
- Go for a walk. Depressed and anxious? Don't want to get off the couch, ever again? Go for a 20 minute walk, anywhere. I don't care if you live in the worst ghetto neighborhood. Go anyway and prepare to be amazed at how much better you feel 20 minutes later.
- Stay on task—for 15 minutes. I'm self-employed, so work paralysis is often a problem for me. If you feel stuck in anxiety, concentrate on any task—but only for 15 minutes! Even a short period of productivity makes you feel better about yourself because you got something done, or at least started it.
I know, I know! Smiling is the last thing you want to do in the middle of paralyzing anxiety! But do it anyway, because it changes the neurotransmitters in your brain. I'm not kidding! Use the DBT half-smile, even though it'll feel totally fake. That's okay!
5. Practice Mindfulness
Almost all chronic anxiety is future-oriented—fear about what "might" happen. The problem is things we're afraid might happen almost never actually happen! And even if they do, our experience of them is never like what we imagine.
Mindfulness is simply a way to focus our attention on the present moment. It gets us out of worrying about the future and brings our minds into the present.
I find these five techniques always help me when I'm suffering from a paralyzing attack of anxiety. I hope they help you too! The hardest part is taking that first step to get moving, but I've found that once I take it, anxiety's horrible, hypnotic spell is soon broken.
As Tiger Woods would say, "just do it!"