I Survived a Panic Attack in a Foreign City; Here’s What to Do if It Happens to You
Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced anxiety.
December of 2015 was a difficult month for me. At the time, I was living in Tokyo, studying Japanese at a language school, and putting a lot of pressure on myself to do well and build a comfortable, new life overseas. I spent months in a busy, high stress routine.
And that’s when it happened: I had my first ever panic attack.
The panic attack was followed by weeks consumed with fear, anxiety, and my first suicidal thoughts. I began to experience near constant heart palpitations and minor chest pain (both of which I had never had before) which were amplified and irritated by anxiety.
On one evening, my anxiety was so high and my heart palpitations so unbearable that I called an ambulance and went to the emergency room.
To my dismay, however, it seemed that I couldn’t get any definite answers from doctors. All of my test results came back normal.
Desperate to find answers, I turned to the internet for help.
Most of what I read recommended that I sit down and fully embrace the experience. Let the anxiety and panic consume me, understand that it would pass, and know that trying to fight it would only make it worse or make it repeat itself more often.
But nothing worked.
Eventually, things got so bad that, at the last minute, I had to change my scheduled holiday trip to New Zealand. Instead, I went home, where I stayed with family for three weeks. It was an expensive but necessary decision.
I never wanted to experience anything like that again.
Since then, I’ve spent much of my time researching how stress and anxiety wreak havoc on physical and mental well-being. I’ve fine-tuned my everyday routine with remedies that help me embrace anxiety, rather than fight it.
Here’s what I learned. I hope it will help you too.
When I landed in Beijing, the smog from all the pollution was so bad that I couldn’t see the airport in front of me as the plane pulled into the gate. (I wish I was kidding.)
My plan was to stay for one to two weeks, but I cut my trip short after just 4 days. I came down with a cold that wouldn’t let up, I was exhausted from travel burnout, and I was coughing up all sorts of unpleasant things. I ended up losing my voice for three weeks after.
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Becoming increasingly worried that I wasn’t getting any better, I finally went to the doctor. He told me that I had come down with laryngitis and that I wasn’t drinking enough water. For future reference, he explained, staying hydrated is the first step to maintaining good health and relieving any ailment.
Since that day, whenever I feel stressed, anxious, or sick, I hear his voice in my head telling me to drink water.
Anxiety is an indicator that the body is under stress or in shortage of something. When the body runs low on fluids, it relies on other resources for an energy boost. When energy levels become depleted, it sends the body into a state of alarm, creating an emotional or anxious response to the most insignificant annoyances.
Drink water, stay hydrated, and, if you’re hungry, eat something.
80/20 Clean Diet
When it comes to a balanced diet, err on the side of foods grown from the Earth. (That’s not to say that you have to cut out your favorite cookies, but I’ve found that reducing sugar and meat intake helps me relieve stress.)
When I lived in Japan, my diet consisted of 80% meat (chicken, pork, seafood) and rice (converted into sugar in the body), and 20% veggies. It didn’t help that I went out to eat ramen two to three times a week (think of the sodium intake).
Since returning to America and overhauling my diet, it’s the opposite. My body doesn’t get so bloated, I don’t feel so lethargic or overwhelmed, and, in general, I feel lighter on my feet.
When I eat foods I know are good for my body, it’s one less thing to be stressed about.
The best way to embrace anxiety is to let it rest.
Sleep allows the body to recharge, absorb and process the day’s events, and bring to the surface any thoughts and emotions that need our attention. It’s a time for quiet and listening.
If you don’t listen, anxiety may continue to fester and can manifest into anger, frustration, sadness, even more anxiety, physical pain, and depression.
If I ever have trouble falling asleep or if I find myself waking up in the middle of the night, my first inclination used to be to reach for my phone. I’d rotate between checking apps, reading the news, and comparing my life to others on social media. In hindsight, this is always a mistake and destroys my joy and self-confidence.
Now, I spring for a book instead.
Being transported into a fictional story or fantasy helps my mind relax. Reading a book is a personal journey with the author’s story. It can encourage creativity, it sparks imagination, and it’s almost like having a dream while I’m awake. My mind also tires more quickly the more I read and try to piece together a story.
Keep a book on your bedside table and reach for it throughout the day and night, rather than grabbing your phone to read the news or the latest Twitter updates.
As an aspiring freelance writer and photographer, I spend long hours sitting in front of a computer, sending emails, editing photos, and staring at the cursor wondering why the words won’t come to me. It can be monotonous work at times, and when I feel like I’m not making any progress, it feeds into my anxiety.
Your job may also demand a lot of time at a computer, and that’s completely understandable. But in the evenings and on weekends, a great way to stay active is to create with your own two hands.
If you can do this with a group, even better. Dive into something creative or something that requires concentration, like a puzzle, coloring, painting, cooking, gardening, or some kind of physical activity that demands your focus.
Going out into the world, having a physical or sensory experience, or accomplishing something towards a personal goal can be incredibly detrimental to anxiety.
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My friends ask me why I like to exercise and hike so much, and it’s because I hate doing it.
Working out can be hard. Some days, I want to quit before I even begin. But I power through because I love how good I feel when it’s all over. I find that if I go one week without exercise, I become incredibly irritable and unmotivated. I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin and my self-talk is more discouraging and degrading. That feels worse than being halfway through a tough workout with sweat dripping down my face, screaming muscles, and a mind telling me that I’m ready to give in.
If you’re able, any form of exercise like yoga, cardio, weight lifting, jumping rope, going for a walk, or bike riding can keep the internal energies flowing and push toxins out.
It’s important to find a balanced exercise routine that works for you, and if you can maintain a regular routine, it can reduce anxiety and stress in the long run.
Float centers are an up and coming trend across the United States for stress decompression. They’re not for everyone, but they may be for you.
Float centers, or isolation tanks, are enclosed hot tub-like tanks where you lie down completely naked on about 10 inches of water that is full of 800 pounds of Epsom salt. You lean your head back so that your ears are underwater and your whole body floats on top of the water. It’s completely dark in the tank, so all sensory stimulation is entirely cut off, with nothing but your own thoughts and anxiety for company.
Sounds kind of scary, doesn’t it?
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My first time in an isolation tank felt very claustrophobic and I stressed out over having to do nothing for an hour (typical sessions last from 60 to 90 minutes). But as time went on, stress and tension began to melt away and memories or thoughts that sat stagnant below my conscious level grabbed my attention.
It was liberating to face my own personal anxieties head-on and feel them diminish when they (pun intended) came to the surface.
When I surrendered to the shame and insecurity, those stampeding negative thoughts in my head began to tire. I heard them out, was able to let them pass through, and gained some understanding about what was causing them.
Isolation tanks are a radical way to face anxiety, and can be a very powerful tool to grab anxiety by the horns and show it who’s boss.
If I’m having one of those days where anxiety is unbearable, things don’t seem to be going my way, or I’m facing a lot of resistance, I accept that as a sign from the universe to take the day off. Sometimes I do just need to stop, take a breather, and regroup.
When you have a day like that, go home, curl up with some hot tea (roasted dandelion tea is a personal favorite) or coffee, prepare your favorite meal, and read a new book or watch your favorite movie. Once you’ve had your reinvigorating downtime, a restful nap, or even a good night’s sleep, get back out there and kick butt.
Do What Scares You
This may seem counterintuitive because simply thinking about doing something that scares you can create anxiety.
Anxiety stems from fear of the unknown and things you don’t understand, but as soon as you do something you’re afraid of, more often than not, you realize that worrying in the first place was useless.
Rather than feeling crippled by anxiety, turn it around and use it to your advantage. Anxiety, much like secrets, die in the light. As soon as you do the thing that creates anxiety or talk to someone about it, and the more you do it, the quicker it dissolves.
Rather than avoiding or ignoring anxiety, I’ve found that it’s important to learn to live with and embrace it, and not let it be a driving force in my life.
These suggestions are meant to be incorporated into your daily routine, rather than be used only at times of high anxiety. Try out any combination of them and tweak what works best for you.
Have you ever experienced anxiety while traveling? How did you cope? Share in the comments!
Images courtesy of Kimi Sugiyama.