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What to Do When Stress (Suddenly) Strikes

Ever had an anxiety attack? Unsure? Same here.

Not too long ago, I woke up in the middle of the night from a real humdinger of a bad dream. I actually woke myself up shouting, it was one of those. Jolted bolt upright in bed, freaked out by all the weirdness of said dream/nightmare, I suddenly realised that I had horrendous pins and needles in my left leg – so much so that when I put my foot down on the floor, I couldn’t feel it and fell over. The same sensation then moved up into my arm. ‘Oh my god, I’m having a stroke,’ I thought, trying not to panic whilst blatantly panicking. ‘Just lay down and see if it goes away’ said the rational part of my brain to the part that thought I was going to die right then and there. So there I lay for 30 minutes, waiting. But the tingling didn’t stop.

Was this the start of a migraine? The first time I’d had a migraine, I’d been really stressed out at work and something similar had happened, but the tingling had started in my arm before moving up to my face and into my lips. I’d started slurring when I spoke and seeing flashing lights in my left eye. As my colleague drove me to the hospital, I was terrified that I was having a stroke. I was only 37 years old at the time. Thankfully, I wasn’t – it was just what turned out to be my first, very unpleasant, and wholly debilitating migraine. But what I was feeling this time wasn’t the same. For starters, I wasn’t seeing flashing lights. In fact, light didn’t hurt my eyes and I could still speak normally – all things I’d been told by the doctor to look out for as warning signs that a migraine was on the way. But this was different. Totally different.

I managed to get up, pins and needles still raging and my heart pumping like mad. What was happening? Yes, I’d been asleep, having a nightmare, but surely the pounding heart and fear should abate when I woke up? It was like I was running full pelt on the treadmill. I was sweating. Really sweating. Feeling short of breath. Hobbling around my apartment in pitch darkness, I headed for the kitchen. ‘Have a cup of tea. Tea fixes everything,’ I thought, as per the first rule in any English person’s instant stress relief manual. But caffeine in this state? Bad idea. Did I have such a thing as non-caffeinated tea? Probably not. What about chamomile tea, which I never drink? Somehow, I had some in my cupboard, probably taken from a hotel I’d once stayed in.

Sweating and breathing heavily while making (stolen) chamomile tea in the dark, I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. Arms windmilling above my head in an attempt to regain some feeling in them as the kettle boiled, I must have looked quite mad had anyone actually been there to witness this unusual episode. Leaning against the fridge and rubbing my left foot, willing it to stop tingling, I felt genuinely scared. I limped to my balcony, very aware of the fact that my recent birthday meant that not only was I old enough to have a heart attack, but my not-so-great family medical history also made it a possibility – which made my heart race all the more. ‘TRY AND CALM DOWN,’ said a not-so-calm voice in my head. Arms and legs full of pins and needles, I sat, trying not to be terrified and drinking chamomile tea on an ancient wicker lounger from IKEA, a ridiculous mid-thunderstorm purchase that I made at 5am nearly 20 years ago and tried to focus on in an attempt to distract attention away from the crazy that was overtaking my body.

When I woke up three hours later, the pins and needles had gone. The sense of relief of being able to properly feel my arms and legs again was so huge that I thought I was going to cry. What the heck had happened? Was I having a nightmare when I was both awake and asleep? Was it a migraine? Was it a stroke? I ran to the bathroom to check my face in the mirror and, while a knackered-looking me stared back, it was the same face I’d gone to bed with. No sign of a stroke. So what on earth had made my body suddenly do this? 

“Anxiety has some very weird symptoms, and one type of symptom is the pins and needles feeling that you felt in your arms and legs, which in turn made you worry that it was something more sinister,” says Lee Whyberd of Dubai-based wellness and energy healing centre, Lee Wellness. “What you felt after that nightmare was anxiety physically manifesting itself in your body – existing anxiety that had undoubtedly triggered a bad dream as a result of pent-up stress, something that a lot of us have bubbling away in our bodies right now.”

While pins and needles – officially known as paresthesia – can mean that there are potential nerve issues, it may also occur because of anxiety, especially during panic attacks. And those who suffer with anxiety are also prone to hyperventilating more as a result of their hyperventilation – hence my difficulty in breathing when I tried to get up. Hyperventilation can cause shortness of breath, which makes people breathe in deeper, but that deeper breathing is actually counterproductive since too much oxygen is the cause of hyperventilation. This makes the symptoms worsen and increases the likelihood of tingling – and so the pins and needles continue.

“Stress – when your mind is always on the go and you constantly feel on edge, as many of us are right now – doesn’t allow our bodies to rest properly,” says Lee. “A really bad dream is often caused by stress. Then, having that bad dream, which often puts the mind into a heightened sense of fear and panic, accentuates that existing state of stress.” While a full-blown panic attack can feel like you’re having a cardiac arrest because of the rapid tightening sensation you feel in the chest, it’s more likely an anxiety attack permeating in a different way because, while anxiety is a slow-burner, panic comes on suddenly and without warning. 

“When you’re constantly stressed, which leads to heightened feelings of anxiousness, learning breath work is enormously beneficial in calming the body,” Lee explains. “When you’re under pressure for whatever reason – and a global pandemic and all the associated trauma that goes with it is reason enough to feel pressured – these kinds of bad dreams are going to be experienced by millions more people than usual, many of whom have never experienced this kind of concentrated, anxiety-related dreaming before. In their simplest form, nightmares are all down to stress, so knowing how to protect and calm yourself from that stress is key in preventing and halting this kind of anxiety attack – which, like everything else, is always more frightening when it happens in the middle of the night.”

What to Do When You’re Having an Anxiety Attack

There are several ways to control an anxiety attack, according to Lee. “In turn, these will address the pins and needles sensation you may experience during one of these episodes,” he says. Try these five do-anywhere tips if you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and need a quick fix to calm you down.

Find a Paper Bag

Keep a small paper bag or two in an easily accessible place, like your bedside drawer. Breathing into an empty paper bag when you’re having an anxiety attack will help you visualise your rate of breath, encouraging you to slow down your breathing, which in turn will help you to feel calmer. Try slowing down your breathing and resisting the urge to take a bigger breath than you need. Breathe in slowly for five to seven seconds, hold for a few seconds, then breathe out for seven or so seconds. Try to avoid over-breathing, and fight your body’s temptation to yawn or expand your chest. Learning to control your breathing as a whole can help to minimise the risk of getting into a heightened state of anxiety, which can lead to this kind of attack.

Think Happy Thoughts

Thinking about a moment in your life that made you very happy can help to calm you down whilst an anxiety attack is underway. When you feel you are getting stressed, sit with your eyes closed and think about that really happy time. The feeling will quickly overshadow the feeling of anxiety that you are encountering, and your body will start to relax.

Run the Tap

The sound of waves breaking on the shore is one of the most calming noises we know. If you’re in a state of high stress or panic and nowhere near the beach, but close to a sink, run the tap. The sound of the water running into a bowl will immediately calm you down. 

Listen to White Noise

Do not try and listen to a guided meditation if you are already having a moment of heightened anxiety. Listen to very soft noise – like classic music – or invest in a white noise machine, which can help to calm the brain far quicker than any kind of meditative process.

Find Your Solar Plexus

The solar plexus is known as the fourth brain of the body, and can be found two fingers up from your belly button. Located in the center of your abdomen, it sits below the diaphragm, the muscle that helps with breathing. Press on your solar plexus and push it in slightly, and try to breathe in and out normally. Placing pressure upon your solar plexus will help you to breathe more slowly and with control, and thus calm you down. 

Interested to learn ways to improve your health and overall wellbeing? Read more in our Wellness section.

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