Monday, 26 October 2015

Coping with panic attacks - What to do to help yourself or a loved one calm down

Your heart is pounding, your vision is blurring and your breathing is rapid... You feel like you are dying...

If you've ever had a panic attack, you know how terrifying they can be. If you have never had the experience, consider yourself lucky.

Panic attacks typically are self-limiting and short in duration. The usually develop and peak suddenly, their intensity reaching the highest level within ten minutes and then abating. Someone experiencing a panic attack may feel their heart bouncing around in their chest (palpitations); may feel sweaty or shaky; might feel like they are choking or can't breathe; and may feel disoriented or dizzy as well as an intense amount of fear1.

Today a friend of mine had a panic attack unexpectedly (as they usually are "out-of-the-blue") and I happened to catch it and help them calm down. I want to offer some tips to those of you who experience panic attacks or have loved ones who do.

Generally the first thing you want to do is control your breathing, as calming your physical self down will help to short-circuit any of the "fight-or-flight" responses occurring in your body. If you are having a panic attack (or your friend or family member is), get into a comfortable position and relax the body and focus on proper breathing. I quickly knelt by my friend and got them to a chair. I told them to focus on their breathing and breathe in through their nose and out their mouth using only their belly. I kept eye contact with them and held their hand and breathed with them.  It is hard to think during a panic attack so if you can be the guide for breathing, it is much easier for the other person to follow; also, if you are helping someone else, it is important to keep calm yourself.

If you are alone when panicking, it may help you to call a friend/family member to help you breathe or talk through what you are feeling while focusing on breathing (but be safe! If you are panicking while driving, pull over and make the call or use a hands-free device). If you can't call anyone find a comfortable spot and begin your breathing exercise. Distraction works well in this case - video games, movie, music, writing. Anything to get your mind off the feeling of fear or the physical symptoms you're experiencing. If you continue to breathe correctly your anxiety should subside. If it doesn't, there are help-lines to call and the operators will be able to assist you.

Once you've regained control of your breathing and are in a safe place to relax, you can work on progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) exercises (especially if you are prone to panicking before bedtime). This will bring the anxiety level down even farther. The slow and controlled breathing is an important first step and might help you come completely out of an attack or might just bring you back to a manageable level of anxiety; but the PMR exercises can really help you get centered again, especially after a panic attack. It all depends on your base-line anxiety levels.

If you are noticing that you are having many anxiety attacks in a short period of time or that they are getting worse or your work/school/relationships are suffering you should speak with your doctor. There are many helpful therapy programs (CBT especially) as well as medications that can help you manage your anxiety. It is not a weakness to reach out for help when you need it.

List of crisis lines*:  (Australia) (Canada)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 800-273-8255. (USA)

*if your country is not listed, a quick Google search should help you find one in your area.

If you enjoyed this post, subscribe to Conquer The Clouds 

Other topics you may be interested in:

13 Beliefs to Disbelieve 

The downward spiral: the fastest way down!

Staying motivated when depressed. 5 ways to fight the sludge of depression/anxiety!

Sleep, Insomnia and Anxiety  

1  Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Jin R, Ruscio AM, Shear K, Walters EE: The epidemiology of panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.
Arch Gen Psychiatry 2006, 63:415-424. PubMed Abstract | Publisher Full Text | PubMed Central Full Text 

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Celebrate the Little Victories Along the Way

Typically we wait until a large job is done before we acknowledge our progress and congratulate our efforts.

I am proposing that instead we recognize the little victories on the road to the goal!

Nowhere has this approach to pause-and-reflect been more helpful than during my med school application process. It has been quite the mountain so far, and I am not yet on the other side.

The beginning of my journey would have been making the decision to take the MCAT and then getting materials in order to study. During that time I made yet another decision to take a preparation course in order to help me better understand the new MCAT format, as I did not take the previous version.

I am deep into the applications process as we speak, and thinking about how I will feel when they are all done and I am then awaiting the calls. But I can't jump to the end of the process yet, or the next few weeks will seem overwhelming. I am going to think of each successive completed application as a mini-victory and cheer myself to the finish line of "ALL DONE!"

You can do the same in your life whether your end-goal is a clean house, a fitter you or a new career. Every step counts and you must remember to celebrate your successes along the way to ensure you maintain positivity to reach your goal!

Conquer on!

Other topics you may be interested in:

7 Steps to Get You Motivated

Motivation for Self-Reflection and Self-Improvement

Visualization - The Tool That Can Make or Break Your Motivation!

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Decision making - 5 quick tips on how to navigate your choices and avoid traps!

(Credit: Shutterstock)
Decisions, decisions, decisions...

Some decisions are instantaneous, almost operating in a subconscious area of awareness. But others may be arduous decisions whose magnitudes seem to overwhelm our abilities to be confident in our final decision.

Here are 5 tips to help you through your next big decision:

1) Flip a coin:
No, I don't mean in the typical sense of leaving your life's path up to the randomness of a piece of metal, but to use it as a gauge to determine your real feelings on the decision you're facing. This is an especially helpful tip if you aren't sure what your opinion on your choices is yet.
Take a coin (any denomination) and assign one choice to the heads side, and the other choice to the tails side. (If you have more than two choices, work with the two most dissimilar choices first, or separate the choices into different groups and assign one group to a side of the coin). Flip the coin and let it land on your hand and cover it without looking. This next point is important: Focus very carefully on what your gut reaction to the result is; if you are looking for some direction in how you might really be feeling about a particular decision, this is a helpful trick. If your reaction to the side that shows is fairly negative, you can be a little more certain that it might not be the choice for you.

2) Pros and Cons list:
This method is more for evaluating the costs and benefits of a particular choice option. It is fairly basic, but can be really enlightening if you are needing a little clarity on where your priorities lie when it comes to the decision you're facing. On one side of a piece of paper, write out "Pros" as a heading, write "Cons" on the other side. Divide them with a line down the centre if you like. Fill in the "Pros" side with as many good or beneficial points regarding the choice in question. Your "Cons" side should be populated with as many bad or negative points. If your choice in question was regarding a decision to quit your job, you could evaluate the "Quit my job" option with a pros or cons list. If it was overall a good idea, some of the pros-points might include "more time to pursue my passions", "availability to my family", "go back to school", etc. Some cons-points might include "financial hardship", "resume gap", "society impression of me as unemployed", etc. What you write in as your points for each side is really up to you. This process will help you to understand the full consequences of your decisions.

3) Get some objectivity:
It is often difficult to pull back from your subjective experience of reality, and really examine your life in an objective way. When making a particularly daunting decision, it can get pretty emotionally confusing. Getting objectivity is a good way to get above the cloud of feelings on the matter and start looking at some facts. It is easiest to be objective if you have a friend or support-person to help you examine your situation. Ensure the person you share your decision making conundrums with has your best interest in mind. It doesn't help you to take advice from someone who doesn't care for your well-being.

4) Prototype matching*:
This is a really interesting way of basically "getting out of your own head" to make a decision. It takes your personal experience in the outcome out of the decision and allows you to basically compare yourself against the "type" of person who makes each decision choice. The process starts by imagining the typical person of each choice. You then compare yourself against this prototype person and determine how well you fit those characteristics. Because we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, it's a very intuitive process. The type of person who best matches you likely aligns with the decision which may suit you better. It also works to prototype match against qualities that best define your ideal self or where you may see yourself in the future. This will help you to make decisions more supportive of your future goals.

5) Think in black and white:
This sounds counter-intuitive to how to think on a daily basis about the world, but this technique can be a really helpful way to avoid 'analysis paralysis', where you are overwhelmed by all the variables of each option and you are essentially frozen in indecision (indecision is a choice, too, by the way!).
This is a really raw way to view your choices. Label them as either good or bad, and make your choices on their qualifier. This process will allow you to quickly weed out the poor choices, and focus in on the more appropriate choices for your decision. This is very helpful for those who tend to get stuck in the analysis paralysis trap!

There can be a lot of fear in decision making, usually due to change, but there can also be a lot of freedom. If you allow your decision-making processes to scare you into indecision, you run the risk of losing control over your life. If you face the fears, you manifest your independence and know that you shaped your course through time!

Conquer on!

 If you enjoyed this post, like CTC on Facebook! and subscribe to Conquer The Clouds

Other topics you may be interested in: 

 What motivates you?

Engine for Change - Motivation for self-relection and self-improvement. 

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step

Overwhelmed? Carve a staircase out of a wall!

 One day at a time 


*Prototype matching: A strategy for social decision making. Niedenthal, Paula M.; Cantor, Nancy; Kihlstrom, John F.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 48(3), Mar 1985, 575-584.


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Visualization - The tool that can make or break your motivation!

 Do me a favour right now. Close your eyes and vividly imagine all the obstacles and problems you might face on your path to your desired goal. Feel the frustration and sense of failure. You might even get to the point of feeling defeated.

Now, try closing your eyes and imagining encountering those same obstacles and facing them with strength and resilience, overcoming them and finding your way to your goal. Embrace the feeling of success and accomplishment. You might even start smiling.

Now tell me:

Which visualization renewed your motivation to continue on your path?

Which of the two exercises likely gave you the boost of confidence needed to power through the down times on the long road to your goals?

Visualization is an important tool for successfully tackling ambitions and goals in life. Athletes do it the night before (and sometimes right before) big races or games. A runner will feel their muscles tense as they see themselves sprinting towards the finish line, feel the tape taught across their midsection break free as they place first. They feel the joy of winning the race before they’ve even step foot onto the track.

The same applies for any goal or ambition you set to achieve. Want to finish your degree? The best motivation won’t come from imagining all the tired nights writing pages and pages of essays, it will come from imagining your pride at crossing the stage, or the job you are hoping to get once you've completed your studies. Imagining the other side can really help to pull you through the tough middle. The goal doesn’t have to be athletic or academic, it can be anything. If you want to buy a car, your motivation to work hard will come from imagining all the things you want to do with your car: go camping, have easier access to shopping or cities, see your friends more. Whatever your reasons, if you visualize them, they will help you over the hard parts.

If you’re on the long road, look back to see where you’ve come from, but don’t stress the middle, look to the end to find the motivation to pull you through the rough patches, and take one day at a time.

And keep Conquering!

 If you enjoyed this post, like CTC on Facebook! and subscribe to Conquer The Clouds

 Other topics you might be interested in: 

Anxiety Conquerors Unite!

The Nervous System

Saturday, 10 January 2015

7 Steps to Get You Motivated and Positive When Feeling Hopeless, Powerless and Weak.

 Photo: 'The Lost One'; by Time Devours Us Photography

Hopelessness is our mind's interpretation of a particular situation; hopelessness is not necessarily an accurate description of what is.

Whether your hopelessness stems from your love-life, your job prospects or choices you have to make about your future, there are a few things you can do to help yourself out. I have listed seven of these.

Hopelessness is a state of mind triggered by a negative emotion, which is a natural occurrence, fueling a barrage of negative thoughts, which then creates a negative cycle, that only leads farther and farther down - right to hopelessness. You can stop the cycle though; below I give you 7 steps which can help you through hopeless periods.

1) Fake it til you make it:
This isn't lying to yourself or deceiving anyone; this is a very simple way of creating positive habits in your lives. If you lack confidence in any area, faking it provides a way of putting on these masks and gradually making them a part of your own natural repertoire. Hopelessness feels like a deep, empty pit from which you dare not emerge, but if you pretend and work around it, and keep fighting, you will create a stream of motivation from which you can create positivity. By choosing your behaviours, you can retrain your thoughts and feelings accordingly. If you choose to act positively in the face of potentially negative thoughts and feelings, you will circumvent the downward spiral and avoid feeling hopeless. This is not to say you should go around fake-laughing when suffering from a traumatic loss; no, I mean to say that you do not have to react to everything as if it were a life-ending catastrophe. If one loses their job, they are allowed to feel the loss, but by maintaining a positive and proactive outlook, and adopting behaviours in kind, they will do much better to avoid hopelessness (and likely remain more productive and have a higher chance of landing another job).

2) Do something you genuinely enjoy:
This is a particularly difficult step for people who are suffering from depression (or even anxiety, for that matter), but it is a powerful one. When you are depressed, hopeless, and down, you are very unlikely to feel the motivation to do things that would have normally brought pleasure. But, just doing these activities can act as a small flame in a dark hallway. It will gradually, over time, re-habituate us to making time for things you used to enjoy, and the probability is on your side that you will end up enjoying your time spent on the activity. This is helpful for getting yourselves out of your own heads and focusing in on something positive and enjoyable.

3) Meet with people who inspire you:
People inspire other people in a variety of different ways and for a variety of different reasons. Make time to see people who inspire you, in whichever way you see is important for you at that time. If you have a favourite professor, or colleague who makes you feel energized and passionate about a topic, speak to them about it. It doesn't have to be a 10-hour 'meeting of the minds' - a leisurely chat at a local coffee shop or over a meal works as well. Whatever works for you. Ask them how they coped with and conquered similar bleak periods, or discuss goals you've set and how you plan to meet them. Whatever gets your engine revving and helps inspire you! My favourite inspirational people are those who are just a few steps ahead of me along a similar path (whether it be in music, writing, or school). The challenges you are facing are likely similar to those they have faced, and they will be able to advise you on how to proceed.

4) Listen to uplifting music, watch funny movies and shows:
It isn't 'escapism' to take a break once in a while and let your worries fall to the side while enjoying some time laughing or smiling. It may feel difficult, but letting go in the moment to just experience what is happening in a particular story, or really being present with a song or at a party, is key to allowing yourselves a moment's rest from fretting. Endorphins are released when we laugh, and these help us to feel better**. Laughter really is the best medicine to uplift our spirits.

5) Read about others who have been through tough times:
It seems cliché, but you really are not alone in your experience of feeling hopeless or powerless. Even the most 'found' among us were once lost at one point or another. Learning from them how they coped with setbacks in their plans or motivation is a great step toward pulling yourself up and finding your stride again. Just like speaking with motivational or inspirational people, reading about people who have endured and conquered difficult situations encourages us to keep pressing on. It is one reason why forums are so popular. We yearn for connection and learning that someone is where you are at that moment in time, or has been before, is a great comfort.

And hey,  you never know when you might be the person that someone is looking for to help them through a tough time!

6) Do a little bit everyday:
If we were to consider that it takes about two hours to clean an apartment, and another two to do all the laundry, it would be looking like a fairly full afternoon - and this is assuming you don't stop for breaks. If you were feeling hopeless and unmotivated this would appear exceptionally daunting as an afternoon task! In order to avoid overwhelming yourselves, the key is to take things in chunks (See Step 3 of Staying motivated when discouraged). Doing 15 minutes a day of cleaning will add up and you won't be stuck with a huge mess at the end of the week. Whether one breaks tasks up this way for studying, cleaning, or paperwork, this method is effective for reducing the stress involved in completing tasks when you aren't feeling your most fiery!

Life feels like a race, yes. 
But the important thing to remember
 is that it's a marathon, not a sprint.


7) Quit judging yourself. Seriously:
This one is difficult for many people suffering from depression or anxiety issues. Feeling useless or defective is common and is largely due to the negative chatter inside your heads. It is also a recipe for that spiral-type thinking mentioned earlier. This isn't usually helpful chatter and is often unrepresentative of yourselves and your character. A few ways to challenge negative thoughts and its effects on your mood is through thought monitoring, and by refusing to allow negative thoughts to consume your minds.

Sometimes you feel hopeless, but all hope is not lost.

 If you enjoyed this post, like CTC on Facebook! and subscribe to Conquer The Clouds

Other topics you may be interested in:
An engine for change... motivation for self-reflection and self-improvement 

Empowering yourself quickly: while coping with anxiety, job-searching or other life challenges. 


** Wilkins J, et al. Humor theories and the physiological benefits of laughter. Holistic Nursing Practice . 2009;23:349.