4 Simple Steps That Stop Anxiety Attacks
I am not a doctor or mental health professional, but I know about anxiety, panic attacks, anti-anxiety drugs and therapy. I’ve suffered from a debilitating fear of flying and anxiety that eventually oozed into every area of my life. (If you’re so inclined, you can read all about that sh*# show here.)
Walk up 35 flights of stairs because the elevator is too small? Contemplate drinking five Red Bulls to drive non-stop across six states so no plane ride? Me and me again.
There is no quick fix for anxiety. I am much better than I was, but it is something that I work on daily. If you suffer from it, you are not alone. Please seek help.
It is difficult to describe the fear, dread, and despair that floods your body when you feel an anxiety attack coming on. It is such a helpless feeling to believe that you are powerless to stop it. But there are options. I have successfully used the RAIN technique to break my anxiety cycle the moment I feel anxiety engulf me. Hopefully, it can work for you too.
The RAIN Technique
When I approach the middle seat of a crammed plane to Vegas, the anxiety bully that I’ve wrestled with for so many years sometimes likes to rear her ugly head. (By the way, she is named Sara, after a girl that tormented me in Junior High, but that’s a story for another time.) When I feel an anxiety attack beginning — shortness of breath, accelerated heartbeat, a desire to escape, and a feeling of dread, I use the RAIN technique to soothe myself and escape the anxiety rollercoaster.
Mediation teacher Michele McDonald coined the RAIN acronym in the 1980s. It is meant to stop anxiety in the moment by breaking negative habit loops in the brain and return focus to the body.
Anxiety is like a fire. Starve it of oxygen (more anxious thoughts) and it dies.
R — Recognize/Relax
A — Accept/Allow
I — Investigate/Inquire
N — Note/Non-identification
Step 1: Recognize/Relax
First, when you feel anxious feelings coming, recognize them for what they are and invite them in. This can be scary at first, but remember, anxiety is a bully. It wants to control your mind and your life. It expects you to fight it, then become agitated and even more anxious. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Instead, change things up a little.
“Yes anxiety, I AM flying to Vegas for Joann’s bachelorette party — in this roomy middle seat — during an electrical storm, in the smallest Cessna imaginable. I’ve been noshing on mini-pretzels and talking to George here who sells insurance. Would you like to join us?”
This welcoming reaction causes the anxiety bully to pause. You aren’t reacting to it how you have in the past. You aren’t ruminating about all the horrible things that could happen. This mindset change alone may break your anxiety cycle in that moment.
Just like in all good bully movies from The Karate Kid to Lord of the Flies to Carrie, when you stand up to the bully, it sulks away (or like in Carrie dies.) Do this enough and the anxiety bully stops coming around as frequently. You’re no longer any fun to harass. And if it does visit, it is a shell of its former self because you have taken away its power and control over you.
You may even relax in the moment, knowing that you have called the bully’s bluff.
Step 2: Accept/Allow
After completing Step 1, you’ve convinced yourself that you aren’t afraid of the bully. The bully that is anxiety can’t hurt you. So, when you feel anxious feelings coming, don’t ignore them.
Ignoring them just makes them more powerful.
Pushing these feelings away makes them more powerful.
Distracting yourself from them makes them more powerful.
So just allow the anxious feelings to be there. When they don’t get a reaction, they will get bored and sometimes go away. You are just riding them out and not trying to change them. Like a bad date.
Keep in mind that though this may be temporarily unpleasant or uncomfortable, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. I resisted this step for a long time because I wanted to avoid the unpleasant feelings of anxiety. But once I practiced the RAIN technique a few times, I found that the anxious feelings became less and less intense.
A few years ago, I avoided ALL elevators. Now, if I begin feeling anxious when I approach an elevator, I tell myself that I may have some unpleasant feelings, but I’m not in any real danger. And most of the time, the anxious feelings then go away.
Step 3: Investigate/Inquire
The next step is to be inquisitive, remain in the present moment and start asking yourself questions.
Why am I feeling anxious?
What triggered my anxiety?
What am I feeling in my body right now?
How realistic are my anxious thoughts?
These questions allow you to approach the situation with genuine curiosity. This step is important because asking yourself questions pulls you away from the rabbit hole of fearing the things that you have made up in your head that aren’t likely to happen, and instead focuses you on what is actually happening. Oft-times this prevents the anxiety wave from engulfing you. Instead of falling into the same old anxiety producing habit loop, it forces you to pay attention to the present. As a side benefit, the information that you gather during this step might help you better handle anxiety in the future.
Step 4: Note/Non-identification
The last step of the RAIN technique is noting or non-identification. Just note what is happening in the moment, and then let it go. No need to identify with the thoughts, feelings, or emotions. No need to analyze them or judge them. Just note them:
“I’m feeling restlessness.”
“My heart is beating faster.”
As Judson Brewer, MD, PhD explains in his 2021 book Unwinding Anxiety, the practice of noting “keeps you here now, curious and focused, riding the wave. Keep it simple by using short phrases or single words. This helps you stay out of thinking or figuring-out mode, and instead will keep you in the direct experience of what is happening to you…. Ride the feeling until it is completely gone.”
Your painful, unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings are not you. They are not your identity. They may be affecting you at the moment, but you don’t need to identify with them, internalize them or hold on to them. Note them as the little grotesque monsters that they are and then let them fly away.
RAIN keeps the anxiety bully at bay
The four steps of the RAIN technique are different tools that snap you out of negative habit loops, break your anxiety cycle, and “get you out of your head.” The next time you feel an anxiety attack coming on, MAKE IT RAIN! You may find that after using RAIN repeatedly, the anxiety bully doesn’t visit you anymore. At the very least, the RAIN technique may lessen the scope, severity or duration of an anxiety attack. What do you have to lose?
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