Navigating the unexpected challenges during COVID-19

The ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic continue, wreaking havoc for school and parents’ work schedules, causing disruptions in the workplace due to more absences than ever seen before. Like many industries, school districts are urgently recruiting applicants to drive buses, substitute teach, serve food, and fill in wherever there are staffing gaps. I’ve had several coworkers request suggestions to help their program participants who report being stressed, with some experiencing high levels of anxiety including panic attacks. We recommend self-care all the time, which is a great practice to incorporate into your routine to help with self-regulation and managing stress. But in the midst of a crisis, when your heart is racing and you’re sweating and shaking, what can be done in that moment?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, every year, up to 11% of Americans experience a panic attack. Panic attacks occur suddenly and without warning. Once one begins, the only option is to ride it out. Typically symptoms peak within ten minutes after an attack starts, stopping completely within 30 minutes. Signs of a panic attack can include chest pain, racing heart, sweating, shaking, feeling of losing control, fear and difficulty breathing. It can feel like you’re having a heart attack, so if you have chest pain or trouble breathing, call 911 immediately. Take no chances when in doubt.

When a panic attack begins and you’re sure you are not having a heart attack, follow these steps to work through it. Focus on your breathing. Use a simple counting method (called box or equal breathing) to gain control: count to four as you breathe in, hold your breath for four counts, and count to four as you slowly exhale. Do this for several minutes, or as long as it takes to settle your breathing down. Hyperventilating will make your symptoms worse, so it’s beneficial to slow things down. Relax your body as you’re breathing, since muscle tension makes it harder for your body to work through stress and expel hormones associated with stress. Understanding that this is temporary (normally 10-30 minutes) will help the feelings of extreme anxiety pass. Distract your senses once you’ve slowed your breathing using a grounding technique. For example, find five things that are a certain color, such as blue, in your surroundings; touch four different textures near you; listen for three distinct sounds; identify two scents that you smell; and notice one thing that you can taste. When you focus on your senses, you can’t also concentrate on whatever has caused the panic attack.

If you experience recurring panic attacks that interfere with your ability to fully live life and fulfill your daily responsibilities, seek professional help right away. Your healthcare provider can help you identify triggers that bring on panic attacks as well as strategies to manage and prevent them.

We don’t always have control over what’s happening around us. One thing we can work on controlling is how we react to and navigate the unexpected things that come our way by incorporating safe, healthy tools into our toolbox of life skills.

Penny Sitler is executive director of Mental Health America of Licking County.

Printed in the Newark Advocate on February 13, 2022.

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