One of the things that trigger my anxiety the most is crowds. Seeing too many people all together, especially if it’s in a small space, makes me feel like I am about to suffocate, as if there wasn’t enough oxygen for all of us.
On Wednesday, my mom and I stopped for breakfast at our favourite cafe. It was past 10AM and I was sure there wouldn’t be too many people since it was a weekday, but much to my surprise it was basically packed. Even more, it was extremely noisy. There were groups of friends having breakfast together and talking loudly to each other, moms with babies, old ladies raising their voices to communicate. The only free table was in a tiny corner of the room. As I sat down, I was already feeling a sense of discomfort building in my stomach and I knew that it could very easily transform into a whole panic attack had I not been able to fully control myself. I didn’t want to give in, but I knew I had to do something. When I saw a couple leaving a table on the other side of the room, in a more quiet corner near the entrance, I asked my mom if we could move there and, with some effort, I was able to calm myself down, sit through the whole breakfast and even enjoy it. I felt so happy and proud of myself, because in so many other occasions in the past all I could do was simply run away, get out of wherever I was and end up feeling guilty for ruining what was meant to be a good day for me and for whoever I was with.
Today I have decided to list down a few tricks that I have learnt and that help me avoid panic attacks when I am in a crowded place and feel the anxiety building up. They’re very simple, and even though they will not make you get rid of your phobia altogether, they can help you get through a tough situation and allow you to still get everything done.
Try to focus your attention on something specific.
Anxiety and panic attacks fill you up with a bunch of different irrational thoughts and impulses until your brain can’t take it any longer and it sorts of shuts off. This can feel extremely disorientating, and a good way to stop it from happening is trying to concentrate on something real and tangible. Reading can be useful, but I find writing even more effective: I usually take out a pen and a piece of paper and write down words I see around me (on a newspaper, on a menu, on a poster, on a shop window). If I don’t have paper, I use the notes app on my phone. I usually avoid writing down my own thoughts, because I feel like that will make my anxiety grow even more, so I find random, neutral sentences to be preferable.
Another way to keep your brain busy with non-triggering thoughts is to have some sort of object you can hold in your hand, like one of those stress balls. I think it’s great if it has a funny or interesting shape and texture, because it will give you something unusual to stay focused on. I usually carry a keychain with me, but anything can work.
Sit or stand where you can’t see how crowded the place is.
This is something I have learned when going to take my exams at university or when our classes are held in big lecture halls packed with 300 students at a time. I realised that sitting in the middle, surrounded by everyone else, made me feel like I was suffocating so I started picking my seat in the front row. Despite being aware that the room is full of people, not being able to see all of them takes some one of the sense of suffocation away. I have started doing this in many other occasions as well: when I am waiting for my turn in offices or shops I try to stand or face an area where there aren’t too many people; when I am at a restaurant or café, I pick my seat carefully according to this same principle. I find that being near a window or a door is also very helpful as it eases the feeling of being trapped.
The safety box technique.
A little trick that a friend has taught me and that I have found useful in many occasions is picturing an imaginary box around you where no one else can enter. As someone who is extremely claustrophobic, at first I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea for me, but after giving it a try I have found out it’s really comforting thinking about it as your safe space, where it’s you and only you. When it’s harder to use just your imagination, another way of doing this is to cross your arms on a table (or even just in front of you), putting your head on them and focusing on the fact that in that even so tiny space there is no one else but you.
Wear comfortable clothes.
This is a little extra point, but I feel like being comfortable is crucial for me. When I know I will be in a stressful situation, I always prefer to wear very practical clothes, anything that can help me not feel trapped (in this sense, I personally prefer baggy, oversized shirts, and avoid high necks or tight shirts because for me they accentuate the feeling of suffocating). As anxiety often makes you feel hot, I think layering is great as you can remove your jacket or cardigan easily when you need it. At the same time, when I am feeling anxious I often feel like I need to… hide? Maybe it’s just me, but because of it I always like to have a light scarf with me that I can put around my shoulders if I feel the need of that extra protection.
Take a break and walk outside.
Lastly, remember that sometimes it’s okay to give in and just walk away from a stressful situation. If it seems like nothing is helpful, you’re more than allowed to go outside, leave the crowd, breathe some fresh air. You can try again after a while if you’ve calmed down enough, or another day. Always remember that, no matter what, you are trying your hardest and you’re well being comes before anything else.