If you’re wondering what to do about anxiety attacks, my experiences might help you out. I’ve worked on solving everything from chest pain to hard to treat depression.
Perhaps “solving” is not quite the right term for it. It’s more like maintaining sanity so well, you’re actually able to thrive.
At least, that’s what I’ve been able to do. Finding my own techniques to help with anxiety have been huge for my success as an author, person involved in 3 business initiatives and a good husband.
Frankly, it’s the husband part that I’m most proud of. That’s because for years, I was pretty sure the more dramatic consequences of suffering anxiety was going to cut me out of enjoying sharing my life with someone truly special.
So on this page, I’m going to share my best tips on controlling anxiety. I earned them all from research and practice.
Let’s dig in.
Hard to Treat Depression And Anxiety Defined
Having depression and anxiety at the same time creates a devil’s circle. For example, anxiety can be defined as:
- Intrusive, repetitive thoughts
- Increased blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Teeth clenching
Depression, on the other hand, is often not as clear. It can range from feeling sad and wallowing in a mental misery you just can’t shake, to downright aggressive irritation.
Combined, people suffering from these conditions are typically in a bad place. But the good news is that there are some simple solutions that provide both short term and long term relief.
Let me explain how I discovered and have benefitted from them in context.
A Personal History Of Hunting For Relief
My first anxiety attacks started when I was fourteen after a bad experience with LSD. I was in early high school and had dropped acid at lunchtime. Later that day, I smoked some mj that the doctors thought was laced with PCP, cocaine and possible some other drugs. In a word, I flipped out and wound up in hospital.
For the next 20 years, my chest would often ache out of the blue. It was like fire had entered my lungs and I would start feeling like I couldn’t get enough oxygen. As a result, I often avoided public occasions. Although I was never diagnosed with social anxiety as such, I certainly acted like I had it.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, I think I’ve also suffered separation anxiety. Maybe it’s just because I was a bit of the romantic-poet type in my earlier life, but upon reflection, I was unusually clingy. It was only after healing from anxiety and developing better coping abilities that I finally experienced a truly healthy relationship.
In the early days, I would leave school and hang out either in a church or library. I had several councilors, but nothing helped. Every time I went to emergency, they quickly ruled out a heart attack and I always left embarrassed.
Luckily, I discovered a few things that helped even in those early days. One church counselor gave me some books to read that led to a lifelong interest in self help and books about willpower. I also had a high school teacher who introduced meditation, one of my favorite personal development activities.
In 1998, while in university, I had a full blown manic episode and wound up in hospital again for three months. Depression followed this episode, and upon reflection with doctors, it was clear I had been depressed and anxious throughout high school.
Finally, I graduated university and after a few years teaching, became an entrepreneur. During this phase of my life, I got serious about optimizing my physical and mental health and managed to completely eliminate anxiety from my life. (I’ll share my best tactics in a minute.)
The only time I’ve suffered any serious anxiety since 2015 was when I tried the carnivore diet for 30 days. Thankfully, I had all the tools you’re about to discover so I could cope during the experiment. Once I added vegetables back to my diet, the anxiety symptoms quickly disappeared again.
The Worst Of All Symptoms Of Anxiety
Unfortunately, I ignored a lot of them when they were recommended to me during the worst years of my suffering. I believe I rejected some of the things that would have helped me the most because I was a “control freak.”
That is one the cruelest aspects of anxiety. It can make you so fragile and needy that you try to control the external world to the point of suffocating the very things that will help you the most. Learning to recognize this was the hardest thing for me, and I can only shake my head in wonder when I think of how I lectured therapists about how wrong they were. In the end, they were right and I was only delaying the help I needed.
Thankfully, hindsight is 20/20. I hope sharing this revelation itself helps others because I know how hard it can be to see yourself objectively when you’re suffering. But it is possible and if you keep showing up to tackle the issue by trying different things, breakthroughs can and will occur. It’s being open to trying new things that seems to be the key.
There’s some good research on why and how willingness to experiment works, even if it takes time. For details, please see:
- Factors Influencing Successful Psychotherapy Outcomes
- The Contributing Factors of Change in a Therapeutic Process
- The Luck Factor
Of course, anxiety can make reading and assessing such information difficult when you’re feeling anxiety. That’s why I’ll start this list of techniques that have worked for me with ones that made it possible for me to read better even when anxious.
7 Coping Mechanisms For Anxiety You Can Try Today
There are many ways to cope with anxiety. These are the ones that have worked best for me for different outcomes.
And that’s part of the key to success: Know what kind of outcome you’re trying to create when using different strategies to combat anxiety. A little strategy goes a long way, especially when you’re using the best possible tool for the specific problem you’re trying to solve.
1. Breathing Exercises That Stop Anxiety In Its Tracks
Psychic Alternate Nostril Breathing
One of the first techniques I learned is sometimes called psychic alternate nostril breathing.
Basically, you imagine that you’re bringing oxygen up through one nostril and then exhaling it out through the other. You can also use your hand to physically manage the process, but I find the imaginative version the most helpful.
This breathing technique can be pleasantly run while reading. It calms thoughts and helps you relax.
I learned this form of breathing from the Russian martial art, Systema. Basically you “swing” the breath as if it were a pendulum.
The pattern goes like this:
- Inhale – pause – inhale some more
- Exhale – pause – exhale some more
This kind of breathing can also be performed while reading. I also like to combine it with walking.
2. Sensory Experiences
One of the many therapists I saw during my years of anxiety suggested long warm baths. I thought he was completely nuts. How could something so simple help reduce anxiety?
He was right, however. In fact, cold showers work wonders too.
Some say that both cold and hot showers stimulate the vagus nerve. I’m not sure I would want this kind of implant to help stimulate it against depression, so I think I’ll stick with hot and cold exposure treatments for now.
Other sensory experiences can include:
- Sensory deprivation tank
- Walks in nature
- Guided meditation or other audio experiences
Even getting out to a movie with friends for discussion can fit the bill. Many of us just don’t do simple things like that enough, though we need to take care that the content does not trigger us.
I also never believed one of my therapists when he asked me to reconsider some of the movies I was watching. I was a film professor at the time, and my own research suggested that movies affect us physiologically. Yet, as a “control freak,” I thought I was different and refused to take heed.
These days, I’m much more selective and mostly stick to documentaries or sci-fi movies that are low or at least moderate when it comes to stimulating action scenes. And if I were triggered, breathing exercises and following up with warm or cold exposure would certainly help.
3. Self Inquiry
It might seem odd to start asking yourself questions in the middle of a panic attack, but it has helped me a great deal. Even if I’m not panicking, certain Harm OCD experiences are quickly dispelled by using this simple process.
I’ve seen in the comments of my TEDx Talk about it that the self inquiry I’ve learned is a lot like CBT and techniques offered by everyone from Marcus Aurelius to Byron Katie.
Myself, I learned this technique from Gary Weber in Happiness Beyond Thought and Evolving Beyond Thought. He seems to be getting it from Ātma Vichār (atma-vichara) and Sanskrit texts that have taught it for centuries.
Interestingly, some people like Rupert Spira have pointed out that the self inquiry tradition should actually be called “self remembering.” I think this makes sense because asking simple questions help you remember to focus on your experience of self in the moment.
The trick is in remembering to actually use the self inquiry process during an anxiety attack. I believe this autopilot response is perfectly doable when you develop procedural memory around it. To do this, I suggest practicing for 90 days to build the habit, at least 4x a week.
Some typical questions are:
- Who is having this experience?
- Where is this tension happening inside me?
- How do my thoughts behave?
- Are my thoughts useful?
- What is the value of this experience?
Admittedly, this process is intellectual and conceptual. But if your anxiety includes racing thoughts and aggressively repetitive ideas that won’t stop, using words to neutralize words has worked well for me.
I’ve also heard from one of my YouTube subscribers that it helped him tackle addiction. As Nguyen Hoang shared:
I broke out of a long addiction when I realized it was actually a symptom of something and not an actual intrinsic desire. I realize it was a bad coping mechanism, and each time I thought about doing this bad habit, I asked myself “Do I really want to do this?” and “Is this there a reason why I want to do this?” …and every time I had the urge to do this bad habit, and I questioned myself, I weakened the need/desire for it. And just 3 weeks later of abstaining from it, I’m now in full control and have little desire to continue with the bad habit. I also made myself accountable. I told myself if I abstain from this for at least 2 months, I will have a better life. I held myself to that, because why would I want to continue on a path that just isn’t working?
Although cravings from an addiction may not necessarily create anxiety, I think you can see how flexible these tools are. Give them a try.
If you need more, The Victorious Mind: How to Master Memory, Meditation and Mental Well-Being shows you 28 more questions with instructions on committing them to memory quickly.
4. Nutrition and Fitness
Diet is tricky, but there’s little doubt that we each have foods that either make us:
The trick is in finding out which foods operate in which ways for you. There’s no particular book or course that will tell you, but you can ask for help from a doctor to help monitor elimination and rotation diets. I’ve also found working with sites like Self Decode useful.
Getting some genetic analysis done is now quite inexpensive and helped me rework a fitness plan. Whereas I used to get injured from heavy lifting using reverse pyramid formations at the gym, my DNA suggested that I am “slow twitch” and should be focusing on endurance training. Making this switch has helped me in many ways.
Like elimination and rotating dieting, it’s as much about what you take away as what you add in. Oddly enough, I’ve developed nearly as much muscle from endurance exercise as I had been from lifting.
And finding appropriate exercise regimes means that you not only relieve anxiety. You free yourself from creating anxiety that arises from injuries when you’re not performing optimal routines for your body type.
5. Gratitude Journal To Help Reduce Anxiety
You’ve probably heard about keeping a gratitude journal.
The question is… why does it work?
One answer is plain and simple:
Anxiety can go down if you remind yourself of why everything is going to be okay.
For example, I write a gratitude list nearly every day. As weird as it might sound to list the obvious, I usually make sure to have food, water and a roof over my head.
I find this simple step does a ton to keep the anxious feelings away because I truly have nothing to worry about in these departments of basic survival.
Then, by adding more aspects of life I’m grateful for, more wonderful memories and feelings flood in… my wife, the view out the window, all the books I’ve written and the readers I’ve heard from over the years.
You might find it difficult to get started, so just go with the facts. The more you practice, the more you’ll find that you recognize your own gratitude. It truly is a miracle to have what you need, and chances are you have more than the basics and many blessings you normally take for granted.
6. Use A Memory Palace To Dissolve Thoughts That Make You Feel Anxious
Dr. Tim Dalgliesh has demonstrated through his research that placing positive memories in a Memory Palace reduces suffering from anxiety.
What’s a Memory Palace?
It’s a mental tool. All you do is create a simple journey through a location you know well.
For example, after reading Dalgleish’s research, I took a small study office I had in the University of Toronto main library (Robart’s library). In each corner, I placed a positive memory.
For example, in the first corner by the door, I placed the memory of performing some card tricks for my doctoral committee after I successfully passed my dissertation defense and they awarded me my PhD. It was the first time I was called “Dr.”
Then, in the next corner of this room, I placed another happy memory. During times of stress, or even just feeling blue, I revisit this short journey of “stored memories” and feel pretty much instant relief.
Give it a try!
For more details on how to do this, here’s a replay of a live session where we dug deeper into the research and how to use the technique:
7. Physical and Mental Yoga
For years I avoided yoga. I didn’t understand why I would want to contort my body into strange shapes, and felt far from flexible enough to even get started.
In reality, learning to move and stretch has been one of the best things for resolving nervous tension I’ve ever done – especially combined with mental yoga.
I’m not a yoga teacher by any stretch of the imagination, but we have a great guest post from one and I’ve been following her yoga for concentration and memory lessons about 3x daily for a while now. The simple routine she suggests really delivers.
As for mental yoga, my favorite has been brain exercises like:
- Number skipping
- Karma yoga (a.k.a. Letting go of outcomes
- Chanting memorized mantras
Number skipping is kind of weird, but it really helps take the mind off of problems. All you do is count from 1-10 and try to “suppress” the odd numbers on the way up. Then, on the way down, you count the odd numbers and suppress the even numbers. It’s kind of like the “don’t think of a red cat” negation principal you may have read about in hypnosis books.
Karma yoga has been defined many ways, and I approach it as “letting go of the outcome.” I don’t know about you, but so much of my anxiety came from being a “control freak,” so when I learned to not need to control how things go, it was a huge relief.
There are different ways to practice, and this is where memorizing mantras has proven really useful.
I like Upadesa Saram specifically for this purpose:
Basically, the second and third verses tell us that we are not in control of how we came to be on earth, nor can we control the results of our action. I don’t believe in any kind of supreme being myself, but I do believe that laws govern the universe. When we realize that we don’t control these laws and simply surrender, then it is much easier to breathe easy and carry on with things in life.
Coping Mechanisms For Anxiety Are Evolved Over Time
I hope you have found these tips from my journey useful.
As a final suggestion, I would urge you to just get started exploring some of these techniques. Don’t require them to work in any particular way or according to any specific deadline. Approach them in a spirit of exploration and experimentation. In other words, “let go of the outcome.” This light touch should ensure that the results will flow a lot sooner and surprise you by how long they stick around.
And how about you? Do you have any coping mechanisms I didn’t mention? Let’s keep the conversation going and work together to “reset” our troubles together so we can thrive together.