There’s SO much I could have written about this week—our horrendous flight from New York to Milan, our travels through the Italian Riviera, the scenic drive from there to Cote d’Azur, then our near-death excursion to Neive (the Napa Valley of Italy)—but I think the most important takeaway from this trip relates to having the tools to overcome debilitating anxiety so you can live your fucken life.
Firstly, in case you didn’t know, I’ve suffered with anxiety pretty much since childhood, with brief periods of relief here and there (and basically no serious panic attacks since I started on weekly B12 injections four years ago). Strangely, though, having chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) makes the anxiety less intense, too (thanks to brain fog and exhaustion), but for some reason, it’s really been lingering on this trip. Troppo espresso? Perhaps.
After taking Zoloft for depression on and off my last two years of college, I was prescribed Paxil in summer 1997. For eight years—until 2005—I took Paxil to manage acute panic attacks (I’d only really had one monster attack at that point, but our family doctor felt it necessary to prescribe the drug, and never thought it was the “right time” to take me off of it.).
Then, shortly after I moved to Manhattan, Dr. Ingram Cohen—Chair of Psychiatry at NYU—concluded that there was no good reason for me to continue on it. So he did what any legit shrink would do and weened me off.
Once completely Paxil-free, I vowed to never, ever, ever take another psychotropic drug ever in my life, and that I would manage any anxiety naturally going forward. Not that I’m against psychotropic drugs, but I’d already been on them for ten years cumulatively.
Since then, although I carry a small bottle (10 pills, .5 mg) with me whenever I travel, I’ve only taken two last-resort doses of generic Xanax—one in 2013 right before having an MRI on my brain, and one on the flight to Milan last Thursday.
Anyway, since this trip seems to have taken years off my life already—between terrifying turbulence and rollercoaster car rides (the trauma is still fresh in my mind)—I thought a step-by-step guide to managing acute anxiety without meds would be worthwhile to share.
As an attack comes on, it can be somewhat impossible to determine whether what we are feeling is anxiety, or whether we are actually dying. I usually manage these terrifying moments by repeating a mantra one of my favorite physical therapists taught me years ago, “I am safe, I am fine, this feeling will pass” and I follow the steps below:
- Recite the mantra while tapping the outer part of your left hand (the meaty part of your palm, right above your wrist crease) with your right fingertips (unless you’re a lefty. Duh.).
- Repeat the mantra a second time while rubbing the area of your abdomen right below your diaphragm with your right hand in a clockwise direction.
- Repeat a third time while tapping your “third eye,” or area of your forehead, between your eyes, right above your unibrow (if you don’t have a unibrow, good for you.).
Now, with both hands, tap your body, from the tops of your feet all the way up to your shoulders, to the top of your head. This is also a good excuse to tap that ass. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
Once my rational brain acknowledges this is a panic attack and not a heart attack, I begin a breathing technique called square breathing:
- Exhale and sigh out all the stale air in your lungs. Ahhhhhhh.
- Place your hand (whichever you’d like) on the lowest part of your belly, below your belly button.
- Now breathe into that spot for a count of 1-2-3-4.
- Hold 1-2-3-4.
- Breathe out 1-2-3-4.
- Hold 1-2-3-4.
- Repeat steps 1 through 6 until you feel grounded once again.
You can trace the square as many times as you need. It usually takes me about four times before my nervous system resets and I can take the reigns back from the scary monster.
Remember, resisting the attack can only make it worse. So, we want to welcome it. If you say, “Ok, monster. I know you’re here, but you don’t scare me.” He will likely go away out of boredom (he gets off on scaring you, not sitting around twiddling his thumbs). If we give the monster the power to terrify us, he will take that power and run—directly toward us—with it. Think “bring it on,” not “please don’t hurt me!”
Once I’ve done all that, I’m ready to sip some herbal tea. At the recommendation of my witchdoctor, I use 20 drops each of Chamomile and Valerian Root. You can get these at your local health food store or on Amazon here and here. Add the drops to an ~8 oz cup of filtered hot water.
As I sip this magical concoction, I might practice some more square breathing, or I might do a guided meditation. Here is one of my faves.
Other natural ways to manage panic without going straight to the medicine cabinet are:
For the yogi, five sun salutations work like a dream.
You can also take a walk. Walking can be soothing, as long as you remember to breathe and move freely while you’re doing it.
If you’re a crier—like myself—you can simply make your best muppet face and cry your eyes out. Btw, as you can see, I was literally crying my eyes out here (notice you can barely see any eyes). We were on an open road on the side of a mountain, so I decided to let it all out. My hands were vibrating with numbness…and so were my husband’s ears.
If you happen to be in wine country (or not too far from a liquor store) there’s also the 100% effective red wine method (apparently one of the most commonly used in France).
Then there’s the pet method (another commonly used method of managing anxiety in France).
The list goes on, but as it’s time for dinner—and more vino—in my neck of the woods, I’d love to hand it over to you. Please tell me your favorite methods of conquering monster anxiety in comments below.
Until next time…
Namaste calm. And remember to face any monsters head-on.
*For more on our travels and to see lots of food porn, check out our trip highlights @ittookturning40 on Instagram.