How Grounding Techniques Help My Panic Symptoms

Back in December 2018, I wrote an article for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) that described my experiences with panic disorder, including derealization and depersonalization. You can read it here on the NAMI blog. Since it published, I’ve received dozens of emails asking how I was able to recover.

I wish I had a simple, easy answer. Although I consider myself recovered, I still have to work at lowering my anxiety. It’s an ongoing process. And we’re all different—what works for me may not work for someone else.

Before I explain what helps me, I want to give a little background:

I’ve had panic attacks since I was young. I don’t remember my first one. But I’ll never forget the first time I experienced feelings that were so terrifying and surreal—they felt unreal. I was in fourth grade.

My teacher asked me to go to the administration office to pick up some papers. When I arrived, a strange sensation came over me, like I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Am I really here? Is this me or someone else I’m watching? Is this real?

The best way I can explain how it feels is that I’m detached from myself, like living in a fog or dream. I wonder if I’m in the right body. My face and limbs feel numb, like a plastic mannequin. When I walk, it doesn’t feel like my own legs are holding me up. My arms don’t feel like they belong to me. When I stare at my reflection in the mirror, I wonder if the person looking back is really me. It’s as if I’ve stepped out of myself and am looking at someone I don’t know. My voice doesn’t sound like mine. I feel removed from the world. Objects look blurry, sounds distorted. It’s a struggle to bring myself back. In these moments, I have wondered if I was going “crazy.” 

Image courtesy of The Recovery Village

The medical terms for these intrusive thoughts are derealization (feeling withdrawn from one’s surroundings, as if the world isn’t real) and depersonalization (an out-of-body experience in which a person feels separated from his own self). Derealization and depersonalization can be symptoms of panic disorder, which I’ve been diagnosed with.

So, what helps me?

Anti-depressant medication has lessened the frequency and intensity of my panic attacks and also the feelings of unreality. But it hasn’t taken them completely away. I know I’ll never be 100 percent cured from panic disorder.

But… I’m able to control my symptoms and live a full, productive, joyous life with the help of medication, mindfulness, and grounding techniques.

I used to think the terms mindfulness and grounding were interchangeable. They’re not exactly the same.    

Mindfulness: Purposefully paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting your feelings without judgment. Mindfulness helps me slow down and appreciate life.

Grounding: Rather than being nonjudgmental about what is happening in the present moment, grounding focuses your attention away from a place of trauma or stress, guiding it toward safety in the here and now. Grounding connects me to my body and my surroundings, reminding me that I’m here and I’m safe.

Grounding techniques use the five senses (see, touch, hear, smell, taste). The purpose is to keep yourself in the present moment. At first, this didn’t come easy to me. It’s taken practice!

Here are some to try:

List five things you can see.

Four things you can touch.

Three things you can hear.

Two things you can smell.

One thing you can taste.

Deep breathe (this is my favorite exercise, it calms me right away). Inhale through your nose while counting to seven in your head. Hold for a count of two. Exhale slowly through your mouth, counting to seven. 

Talk to someone.

Use a grounding object, like a stone, a small stuffed animal, a stress ball. Touch it and notice the texture.

Taste food or a drink. Is it cold, hot, creamy, crunchy, sweet, salty, sour, or bitter?

Chew gum, noticing the flavor and how it feels in your mouth as you chew or blow bubbles.

Smell a flower, essential oils, coffee, a lemon, lavender. Does it relax you?

Listen. Is there a dog barking, sirens blaring, birds singing, wind rustling?

Stretch or exercise, aware of how your arms and legs feel with each movement.

Take a walk. Feel your footsteps on the dirt, gravel, or pavement.

Pinch yourself, pull your hair, wiggle your fingers and toes.

Count to 100, then backwards.

Sing a song or say a nursery rhyme in your head.

Describe your surroundings in detail. Focus on an object, memorizing details about it. Look away and list everything you saw.

Name all your family members and their ages.

Use an anchoring phrase: say your name, your age, the date, what time it is, where you are, what you are doing.

Repeat a mantra while deep breathing. Like: “I am safe.” “Life is good.” “I am real. The world is real.” “Here. Now.”

Pet an animal.

Take a shower or bubble bath.

Listen to your favorite music.

List five things you’re grateful for.

Journal.

Practice visual imagery. Think of a place you love, describe it to yourself in detail, and picture yourself there.

Think of someone you love and what they would say to you.

Be kind to yourself. Tell yourself: “I matter.” “I will get through this.” “I’m doing the best I can.”

What I Noticed While Talking to Teens About Mental Illness

Teen Mental Health

Last week I spoke to teens about mental health, like I’ve done dozens of times before. But this time it felt different. This was my first set of presentations since early 2020, before COVID-19 lockdowns.

I’m a speaker for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I present NAMI’s Ending the Silence program to middle grade and high school students. My co-presenter and I talk about the warning signs of mental illness and what to do if they notice those signs in themselves or a friend. We speak openly about anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, and suicide.

So last week, instead of being inside a classroom with students and their teacher, we talked to them via Zoom. The presentations went great and I was so thankful to have the opportunity to meet with them. Technology can be wonderful!

But there’s nothing like actually being there with the kids, looking them in the eye, feeling that emotional connection and energy.

On Zoom, some of the students preferred not to be seen. Their cameras were on, but instead of a bunch of faces, I saw ceilings, bedroom walls, or a silhouette of a person. But that’s fine, I get it. It’s high school.

Even if I couldn’t see them, I knew they were there, listening. When I give these presentations, I never know who needs to hear what I say that day.

Through my computer screen, I could sense the kids were stressed and frustrated. Most likely some of them were anxious and depressed. There’s no doubt that distance learning this past year has taken an immense toll on students (parents and teachers too, of course).

At the end of our presentation, my co-presenter and I open it up to questions. We let the kids know they can ask us anything at all. We’re open books. Sometimes there’s only silence. Which again, I totally get. Mental illness is hard to talk about. Kids don’t want to be thought of as different. They don’t want their peers to think they might be struggling with a mental health condition.

A question at the end of one of our sessions last week broke my heart. Through an anonymous direct message, a student asked: If someone is thinking of attempting suicide, but isn’t really planning to do it, does that person still need to get help?

Our answer: YES. Talk to a trusted adult. A parent, teacher, school counselor, family friend, adult-age sibling. Tell someone you trust so you can get the help you need.

Another student wrote: How do you get help without your parents knowing?

Our answer: It’s hard to do that for a minor. Talk to an adult you trust. If that person can’t help, go to another. And another. And another. Until you get the help you need.

I pray they’re getting help. It’s rewarding to know that at least we opened the conversation.

While the stigma surrounding mental illness is beginning to weaken, there’s still a long way to go. My hope is that with future generations, mental health conditions can be spoken about as easily as physical diseases.

Keep talking about it.

The goal is to end the silence.

How an NFL Team is Kicking the Stigma

Hurt | By Darius Leonard

It inspires me so much when athletes, celebrities, and famous people speak out about their struggles with mental health. It’s comforting to know that despite living with a mental illness, there’s hope to live a productive and successful life.

Athletes are thought of as tough, strong, powerful. Resilient. Which is why it can be super difficult for them (especially men) to speak out about a mental health issue.

But mental illness does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter how physically strong someone is or how much money they have.

Anyone can be affected by mental illness.

National Football League player Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts, says he suffers from anxiety and depression. In a personal essay for The Players’ Tribune, Darius talks about losing his brother eight years ago and how the pain is still so deep.

“If you look at me and you see a Cinderella story, or a superhero, or the Maniac, or whatever, just know that underneath the helmet is a real person who is still working through some real pain.”

Colts Kicking The Stigma Initiative

Darius gets support from Colts owner Jim Orsay, his family, and the Colts organization. They started an initiative called “Kicking the Stigma,” bringing awareness to mental health and providing support for mental health services in Indiana. The program is part of a larger NFL initiative, “My Cause, My Cleats.”

Jim Orsay says, “‘Kicking the Stigma’ is our commitment to eradicating and getting this environment changed. We need to find ways to get people to feel safe and not to feel judged or persecuted when they’re trying to seek help.”

Absolutely. The more we speak out about mental illness, the weaker the stigma becomes.

Thank you, Darius, for sharing your story. It’s not easy to talk about a mental health condition. And thank you Colts, for shining the spotlight on mental health.

Mental illness is not anyone’s fault. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is medical help available.

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Forget About Life for a While

This past week has been especially difficult on an emotional level for me (and millions of others), with the political turmoil and our extremely divided nation. Plus, the ongoing pandemic. I live in southern California, where positive Covid numbers and hospitalizations continue to increase. There’s no date in sight for the end of the shutdown.

A few days ago, I was at my computer paying bills. I did something I’ve rarely done the past few months while working. I put on my favorite Spotify playlist. I love music, so I have no idea why I haven’t listened to it much lately in my office. Maybe it’s because I’ve been so overloaded with information, I’ve just wanted it quiet.

Anyway, the first song to play was “Sittin’ Pretty” by Florida Georgia Line. It took me back to the long, lazy days of summer.

Pretty as a peach
As a postcard picture of a West Coast beach
So pretty if I had to bet
This is pretty much as good as it gets

Ah, summer… Backyard barbecues with loads of family and friends chatting and laughing together. Fourth of July fireworks lighting up the black velvet sky. Lounging by the pool reading a book. Gardening and picking tomatoes, with my pup Duke by my side. Walking hand-in-hand along the beach with my husband. Licking a melting ice cream cone and munching on my favorite summer fruits — peaches, watermelon, cherries, and plums. Carefree hot days. Summer nights glittering with twinkle lights and tiki torches.

While listening to “Sittin’ Pretty,” something happened that I totally didn’t expect. I felt enveloped by warm sunshine, like a weighted blanket comforting me. I took some deep breaths and let my mind drift. I basked in the memories of summers before 2020, feeling completely and utterly refreshed.

I allowed myself to take a mental break and forget about life for a while.

Which reminds me of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”:

It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
‘Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been comin’ to see
To forget about life for a while

This experience has made me realize how much I’m craving peace and tranquility. Normalcy. Who knows when that’ll come. But despite these days of unrest, worry, and uncertainty, I need to make positive changes for my mental health.

Music can help me do that. Not that it’ll cure the problems in our world, but it offers a much-needed respite from it all. Music reminds me that this period of time won’t last forever. We will get through this. It WILL get better.

In the meantime, I’m going to make a point of turning on my Spotify playlist much more often.

New Year’s Refresh and Reveal: From Anonymous to the REAL Me!

I’m so excited to finally write this post. I’m not big on New Year resolutions, but this is definitely something I’ll be able to check off my list.

When I started this blog six years ago, I knew I wanted to write about mental health in general and specifically, my journey to recovery from panic disorder and agoraphobia. Like many other blogs centered on mental illness, I chose to be anonymous.

Over the years, I’ve become more open about my issues. Now I’m a mental health advocate, something I wasn’t necessarily striving for when I started my blog. But that’s what has evolved — by writing about it here and on other mental health-related websites, including NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), The Mighty, and Thrive Global. I’m also a speaker for NAMI’s in-school mental health awareness program, Ending the Silence. I talk to middle grade and high school students about the symptoms of mental illness and what to do if they notice those signs in themselves or a friend.

All of my writing in regards to mental health has been under the pseudonym Jenny Marie. I’ve always known that one day I’d change that. I just wasn’t sure when.

And now, I’m ready.

Going forward, I’ll go by my real name (drum roll)…

Jeni Driscoll

Eeks!!! It’s hard to explain, but it feels so strange (and a bit scary!) to reveal that. Plus, I’ve never posted pictures of myself!

It’s like opening the curtain, letting people get a glimpse of the real Jeni. I feel vulnerable. But it’s not like I’m a different person or haven’t been authentic in my past writing. I’ve been true to my real self through ALL of it. Every single post I’ve penned is filled with my own thoughts and experiences. My life. Just different names.

I was away from the blog for much of 2020, but am happy to be back! I’ve had fun giving my site a little update, like changing the header background to olive branches. I chose them because they symbolize peace.

As with different seasons of life, my direction pivoted this past year. Partly because of the global pandemic and partly because I chose to focus on other endeavors.

Last year I completed a manuscript for a middle grade contemporary fiction book about a girl with anxiety and panic attacks. I’m currently querying agents, hoping to find just the right one to champion my book.

Sometimes we all need fresh starts. What better time than now, after making it through the extremely difficult and challenging year of 2020.

My wish and prayer for all of us is a healthy, peaceful New Year.

Take care,

Jeni

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Self Care on My Morning Walk

This morning I was out walking our dog, Duke, by myself. This is rare because my husband usually joins us, which I love. But today it was just Duke and me. I didn’t have my phone so that meant no music, no talking. That left me to daydream, letting random thoughts swirl through my mind. It felt like I hadn’t done that in a long time.

At first I started thinking/worrying about health issues my mom has been having. And how the pandemic has so negatively affected our businesses. The bills I need to pay when I get home. How I need to research how to stop a puppy from jumping on people. And on and on, reflecting on things that make me unsettled, sad, or nervous.

Then my mind switched to something I love: my writing. I’ve completed a manuscript for a contemporary middle grade fiction book and am querying to find an agent. While it can be a long, frustrating process, not to mention a ton of work and so hard to get those rejections, it’s also exciting and fun for me. I’m busy researching agents, reading books in my category, and making a game plan for my next steps.

Anyway, as quickly as the writing thoughts came, I pushed them out of my head. I had a strange feeling of guilt, like I needed to spend more time thinking about the important things I need to (or wish I could) fix in my life, like health and business issues. It was like I was being overindulgent or selfish by letting myself enjoy something just for ME.

Then the words “self care” popped into my head. Yes, of course. I reminded myself to listen and pay attention to those words. Self care. Self love. I’m important. I deserve this time. And I can use it however I want, letting my mind wander and dream.

So I did.

As my white lab pup and I walked under shade trees, I took deep breaths and focused on being mindful. I noticed the perfect, warm, fall day and the soft breeze. The quiet, except for Duke’s light panting sounds. Peaceful thoughts came and went.

It felt, well… delicious.

Before I knew it, we were walking up the street to our house. Not only did I log a bunch of steps on my fitbit, I cleared my mind. I’m refreshed and ready to tackle those bills. And maybe even find my dream agent.

Plus, I have a pooped-out pup.

My New Love

Meet… DUKE! Our new bundle of joy, filling our home with a ton of love and lots of laughs. To be perfectly honest, exhaustion too. But that comes with the playful puppy stage, and I’m soaking it all in. Now at eleven weeks, he’s growing so fast. Soon I won’t be able to hold him like I can now.

Duke is a bright light, a wonderful distraction from this anxious, frustrating, uncertain world we’re living in. He came to us at just the right time.

For the past couple of years, my husband and I talked about getting a dog, since our beloved Buddy died in August 2017. We started looking seriously last October. We searched high and low, researching all of our options. We didn’t have our hearts set on getting a dog from a breeder. But this opportunity came along and seemed, well, perfect. We felt it deep inside, that THIS was finally it.

We knew we wanted a boy, and we knew we wanted to call him Duke. We named him after Duke’s Beach House in Maui, a super special place to our family.

Duke, an English lab, was born in the middle of May. It would be eight weeks before we’d bring him home. In the meantime, we busied ourselves preparing for a new pup; reading books on how to crate train a dog, which food to use, which chew toys to buy for a teething puppy.

After the litter was born (seven boys and three girls), the breeder would post pictures and videos. Each pup wore a different colored collar. One of the males who had on a red collar (eventually our Duke) was always at the top of our list. When the pups were about four weeks old, we were watching a video in which a woman said to red-collar pup, “Good boy, Duke.” I looked at my husband and said, “Did she just call him Duke?”

When we needed to make our choice, it was between Duke and one other pup. My husband, daughters, and I wanted to make SURE we were doing the right thing, taking home the perfect dog for our family.

I told my husband, “God is probably saying to us, ‘What do you mean you aren’t sure? I’ve given you the clearest sign! Choose DUKE!'”

Absolutely. No need to second-guess anything.

Two weeks later, we picked up our sweet “little polar bear.” Life has changed in the most lovely, delightful way.

Thank goodness both of our adult daughters (now working from home at their apartments) were able to stay at our house the first two weeks we had Duke. They got in some great bonding time with their “brother” and helped out more than I can say.

Everyone told me that having a puppy is like having a baby. This is really pretty accurate. I can’t tell you how excited I was when Duke finally slept through the night! BUT… he’s still waking up at 5:30am, starving and ready to play. Needless to say, I am NOT.

But I’ve learned to take advantage of my early hours, sneaking in some deep stretches and yoga at the crack of dawn. My new schedule (and my tired eyes) have forced me to slow down, which is a good thing. I’m not hard on myself when I’m not as productive as I think I should be. I tell myself I’m doing the best I can, and everything else can wait.

And those lazy days of summer? It’s been years, but I’m finally experiencing them again. Sure, part of it is because of the Covid-19 shutdown. But much of it is being home to keep a watchful eye on our curious pup. One of my favorite parts of the day is sitting in the shade with Duke in his backyard playpen while he sleeps. I read a book or magazine and sip an iced coffee. It feels indulgent.

Oops, time to go. Duke needs to go outside. I don’t want to clean up another mess on the carpet.

Why I Haven’t Felt Like Writing During COVID-19

I honestly thought I’d be blogging a ton since COVID-19 began. Writing is therapeutic to me, so it makes sense that I’d be penning my emotions as quickly as they’ve been changing—every day, sometimes every hour.

But I haven’t been in the mood to write. I know it’s not a big deal, it really doesn’t matter. But then why does it bother me? Why do I feel guilty for not being able to gush my thoughts out during this global pandemic?

Expressing my feelings in writing is an overwhelming task that I just haven’t wanted to tackle.

In mid-March, when this got all-too real and we were on lockdown, I was paralyzed by fear and uncertainty, barely able to process what was going on. Maybe my history of anxiety and panic disorder made it worse. Or maybe this is what everyone was feeling.

I kept thinking how strange it was that the entire world was totally united by this ravaging disease.

When a community goes through a disaster (such as my city of Thousand Oaks, CA did during a mass shooting and devastating wildfires), the rest of society feels terrible about it. People you don’t even know are praying for you and your town.

But this is so different. Every single person in the world has been affected by the pandemic. Not in my wildest dreams would I ever believe that our lives would abruptly halt.

Life as we know it, ceased to exist.

Drastic measures—like quarantine, social distancing, and wearing masks—have helped us save each other from this deadly virus. Which truly is, a beautiful thing. Staying home, not just for our own health and safety, but for the health and lives of people we don’t even know.

I’ve finally figured out why I haven’t wanted to write about the virus. Writing is too personal. I’ve looked for ways to escape reality, not delve into it.

So instead, I’ve chosen things that feed my soul, that are good for my mental health. Like…

  • Revising a manuscript. I know, this is writing. BUT, it’s middle grade fiction and is a wonderful escape from reality
  • Yoga in my family room or back yard
  • Video chatting with friends
  • Cooking with my daughters
  • Playing board games with my family
  • Taking lots of hikes in the mountains (until the state and national parks were closed), walking in the neighborhood
  • Riding our exercise bike
  • Deep breathing and meditating
  • Painting my nails
  • Gardening
  • Reading books and magazines
  • Painting my daughter’s bedroom, which motivated me to now paint our master bathroom
  • Decluttering. I’ve done a bit, much more ahead

I’m doing my best to cope. It’s amazing how many emotions have been swirling around, different from day to day. Scared, frustrated, angry, sad, and stressed.

But I’ve also found joy and happiness in this “new normal.” For the most part, life is simpler, quieter, less frazzled. Time to slow down and appreciate life.

I know I’m not alone. We’re in this together and we WILL get through it. And you know what? I do feel better that I’ve written this down.

Take care, and stay safe and healthy,

Jenny

Uncharted Territory

I know I’m in the company of millions when I say my life has been turned upside down. I’m uncertain, anxious, vulnerable, and scared.

Less than a week ago, I knew coronavirus was serious, affecting far too many people across the world. My niece, her husband, and their new baby are stationed in Italy, a country hit so hard by this disease.

But I was going about my life normally, hoping that COVID-19 would somehow just go away. I was excited about attending a wedding the next week, a family birthday party, and hopeful that my husband and I would still be able to take my mom on a Hawaiian vacation at the end of March.

Then last Wednesday, it got real. Everything changed.

It started that afternoon, when my co-presenter with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) called to tell me our Ending the Silence presentations were cancelled. We were supposed to be at a local high school early the next morning to speak to close to 600 students about mental health and mental illness. But the school district was practicing strict rules on “social distancing,” a term I hadn’t heard much about until that day. A large presentation in the auditorium was not going to happen.

That night, President Trump spoke. And it hit me. COVID-19 is not going away any time soon. Our lives are about to change. Drastically.

And here we are.

Panicked. Terrified. Wondering when life will ever get back to normal. Or if it ever will.

I saw this photo on social media, taken on the 101 freeway in my city of Thousand Oaks, CA

Every day I remind myself that this is totally out of my control. I can’t change it. All I can do is try to stay healthy and positive, which at times is super challenging. Some days it feels like my stomach is tied in knots and I wake in the middle of the night, unable to fall back to sleep.

But I’ve decided to take charge as much as I can. For instance, with the extra time I have at home, I’m getting more organized and caught up on bills and paperwork. I have plans to declutter soon (which I’ve been meaning to do for years, but never have the time).

I’m exercising more, which is great for both my physical and mental health. I’ve been riding our stationary bike (which is downstairs and has been sitting empty for much too long), taking long walks in the mountains, and doing yoga at home with my husband (we love Yoga with Adriene).

I’m connecting more with friends and family via phone calls, texts, and small get-togethers. This past Saturday night, my husband and I went to a friend’s house for dinner. It was just the four of us, eating, catching up, laughing, and playing games. It felt amazing to slip away from reality for a few hours.

I go through moments when I think, “Okay, I got this.” To: “I hate this, I’m so worried about EVERYTHING.” Including my parents, who live near us. My mom is 84 and my dad is 91. They know, and I know, that they are most at risk for the virus.

But again, I have no control over this.

Day by day. Week by week. Month by month. We will get through this.

Take care, everyone! I truly hope you are well.

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