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 question 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The medical terms for these intrusive thoughts are derealization (feeling withdrawn from one’s surroundings, as if the world isn’t real) and depersonalization (an out-of-body experience in which a person feels separated from his own self).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.

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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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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We ALL Have Mental Health: Let’s Talk About It

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It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week and tomorrow, October 10, is World Mental Health Day.

So let’s talk about it!

Yesterday I had a wonderful opportunity to speak to a group of elementary, middle school, and high school counselors about mental illness. I’m a presenter for Ending the Silence, a mental health awareness program by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

An area we focused on is the importance of awareness not only among students, but parents and school staff as well. It takes a village. The mental health conversation must be open.

One of the middle school counselors told me something that at first, surprised me. She said the number of students she sees for social and emotional issues (anxiety, depression, etc.) FAR surpass those she counsels for academic reasons. Years ago, it was the exact opposite. And this is middle grade.

I suppose this really isn’t so surprising. It seems as if each generation is more stressed than the previous one. Millennials are known as the anxious generation. Gen Z (ages 15-21) has reported the worst mental health of any generation, according to the APA. Some of the reasons? Social media, gun violence, political climate, immigration, sexual harassment.

I’m passionate about spreading awareness to young people. The more that people talk about mental illness, the weaker the stigma is. The hope is that stigma will lessen with each future generation.

May is Mental Health Awareness month! Let’s all reduce the stigma of anxiety disorders! How? By talking about yours and not being scared to get or ask for help! We are so passionate about the subject that we have a FEARLESS collection of treasures that GiveBack to a local organization helping people with anxiety disorders!

Adolescents need to know they are not alone, that others feel the same pressures. That it’s okay to admit they’re not okay, and it’s absolutely fine (and healthy) to talk about it. They need to know there’s medical help available. The sooner they get help, the better.

When I speak to students during Ending the Silence, we discuss the warning signs of mental illness and what to do if they notice the symptoms in themselves or a friend. We talk about anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, eating disorders, and suicide.

Suicide is the focus of this year’s World Mental Health Day. According to the World Health Organization:

Every 40 seconds, someone loses their life to suicide.

The conversation on mental health and mental illness needs to be open. Talk about it. Share. Know that you are NOT alone. There is help available. There is hope.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Lifeline at (800)273-8255. Or text HOME to 741741.

Speak out. Together, we can end stigma.

Mental Health and Me, Featured on Thrive Global

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

It’s been a while! It feels good to be here, writing again. I’ve been devoting my time to another writing project, so I haven’t had much of a chance to be on the blog.

I want to say hello and share an article from Thrive Global I was recently featured in. They talked to me about my mental health advocacy and work with NAMI. I’m a speaker for NAMI’s in-school mental health awareness campaign, Ending the Silence.

You can read the Thrive Global article here.

It’s hard to believe it’s already the middle of August. My favorite season is just around the corner, yay! But I’m savoring each day of summer, aware that it is fleeting.

Take care, Jenny

15 Best End of Summer Quotes - Beautiful Quotes About the Last Days of Summer
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It Isn’t Easy to Be Vulnerable

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I can’t get something out of my mind and I want to share it here with you.

I often write about my experiences as a speaker for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)’s in-school mental health awareness campaign, Ending the Silence. I visit high schools and talk to students about the signs of mental illness and what to do if they notice those symptoms in themselves or a friend.

Two weeks ago, my co-presenter and I went to a local school and presented four Ending the Silence programs to 140 freshmen.

The kids always leave an impact on us, but this time it was especially insightful.

A little background… following the presentation, we have a question and answer session. Some classes are really quiet and it’s hard to get the teens to participate. I totally get it. Anxiety, depression, bipolar, OCD, PTSD, eating disorders, and suicide are not easy topics to open up about. Especially in front of peers.

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But that day, we had questions like these:

What do you do if you think an adult you know has a mental illness, but they refuse to listen to you, as you’re just a kid? How do you make them to go to the doctor for help?

How did you try to kill yourself? (directed to my co-presenter, who speaks very openly about her depression, OCD, PTSD, and suicide attempt)

How do you know if you really have depression? Because all teenagers are anxious or depressed. Aren’t they?

I often wonder if the kids ask questions from personal experience or if they’re simply curious. I never know what impact our words have on them. I never know who we’re going to reach.

When the presentation is over, a few students usually stay to talk with my co-presenter and me. I know it’s hard for them to do that. Some don’t want their friends to see that they’re going up to talk to us. Some are too embarrassed. It takes courage to talk about problems — especially mental health issues.

It’s scary to be vulnerable.

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I’ll never forget the three who opened up to us that day two weeks ago.

There was a girl I noticed when I was in front of the class speaking. I can’t pinpoint why, but maybe because she looked like she was paying careful attention to what we said. She asked several questions during the Q&A, mostly about how to handle an adult with a mental illness. She walked up to my co-presenter and burst into tears. I didn’t hear what she said. I found out later that the girl’s dad has a mental illness and is abusing her.

At the same time my co-presenter was helping her, another girl came up to me. Her hands shook and tears streamed down her face, as she told me about her family situation. She said she has anxiety and panic attacks, and had a panic attack while I was speaking. She wanted to leave, but didn’t because she thought it’d be rude. I assured her it wouldn’t have been, and I completely understand. (I’m recovered from panic disorder and agoraphobia). We discussed how to talk about her problem with her mom, so she can get medical help. She gave me a big hug before she left.

Another girl came up to us, visibly shaking as she told us about her severe anxiety and panic attacks. She paced and it was hard for her to look us in the eye. She said her mom has anxiety too. They both haven’t seen a doctor because her mom says they don’t have enough money. We came up with some ways for her to bring up a conversation about mental health with her mom, and try to find a way to get help.

I never would’ve guessed that those teens are going through such serious, challenging times. It doesn’t show on their faces, on the surface.

That’s why I give the students this gentle reminder: Be kind. You never know what someone else is going through. Be there for each other.

It’s okay not to be okay.

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Spreading Mental Health Awareness: One Teen at a Time

some things take time

I wish I would’ve known about mental health conditions when I was a teenager. If I had, I may have told someone about my frightening and strange panic attack symptoms. I could’ve received medical help much earlier than I did.

But I was embarrassed and didn’t want to be different. To me, it wasn’t an option to tell anyone. I dealt with it in silence for 20 years.

That’s the main reason I’m so passionate about speaking to youth about mental health. I want them to know that it’s okay not to be okay. Mental illness doesn’t mean you’re weak. You shouldn’t feel ashamed. It isn’t anyone’s fault. There is help available. You are not alone.

I volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as a speaker for “Ending the Silence,” an in-school mental health awareness program. Yesterday I presented to about 70 high school seniors.

During the presentations, my co-presenter and I explain the warning signs of mental illness and what to do if they notice those symptoms in themselves or a friend. We talk openly about anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, bipolar, eating disorders, and suicide.

Yesterday I told the teens that when my doctor first diagnosed me with panic disorder and agoraphobia, I was actually happy. Not happy that I had it, but relieved that I finally knew what it was.

There’s an actual name for my terrifying symptoms!? Other people feel like this? (Yes, millions!) And there’s treatment for me? (YES!!)

It felt like I was validated. Those awful panic sensations I’d hidden for so long were REAL. I had a disorder in the brain and needed treatment. It wasn’t possible for me to “get over it” or “just calm down,”  phrases I often reprimanded myself with.

That was the first step in my recovery.

Have patience with yourself. No one is perfect!

When I present “Ending the Silence,” I keep in mind that I never know who I’m going to reach. But there are kids who need to be hearing what I have to say.

Yesterday after the presentation, several teens came up to my co-presenter and me. One student said her younger brother attempted suicide last year and she’s having a hard time with it. Another girl said her boyfriend gets panic attacks and she wants to know how to help him. She said his family doesn’t want to admit he has a mental health condition. The teens thanked us for listening and giving our input. Even though they still didn’t have a clear-cut path to fix their problems, they said it felt good to let it out and talk to someone who understands.

Which brings me back to the point… you never know what people are going through.

When I speak to the students and look out into the sea of faces, I often wonder what they’re thinking. And who I’m reaching that day. I’ll never really know.

But all I can do is keep trying.

End the Silence.

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers - Buddha Doodles

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The Scariest Part of Panic Disorder: on the NAMI Blog

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I’m excited to have another article published on the NAMI Blog!

It’s about something I never thought I’d ever talk or write about. For me, it was the scariest part of panic disorder.

Derealization and depersonalization.

The best way I can describe it: an out of body experience. My body would feel numb and I’d feel disconnected and disoriented from the world around me. I’d look into a mirror and wonder if it was really me staring back. It was like living in a fog or dream, where things don’t seem real.

I used to worry that if I told anyone, he or she would think I was “crazy.” It wasn’t until years after I recovered from panic disorder, that I found out these symptoms can be part of the illness.

For more on my experience, please click here to read my post on the NAMI Blog.

Nami National Alliance on Mental Illness

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Why Asking for Help Isn’t Easy: My Post on the NAMI National Blog

I’m excited that a piece I wrote for NAMI’s National Blog has been published! How stigma prevented me from receiving medical help for panic disorder. Please Click here to read.

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(Note, this is not an excerpt)

Sometimes people ask how I was able to hide my panic attacks for 20 years. My first thought: I have no idea, I just did. I felt there was no other choice.

The reason, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time?

Stigma.

Growing up, I felt different than the other kids. I was sure they’d never understand the frightening symptoms I experienced. I didn’t want my friends, or even my family, to know. I didn’t want them to worry and think I was strange.

Most of the time I was fine. So why talk about it? I can handle this on my own.

Years later, I realized I didn’t need to handle it by myself. More importantly, I shouldn’t have.

I didn’t know there was help available. I thought I was alone.

Now I speak out about mental illness because I don’t want others to feel like I did. I want people to know there is hope. You are not alone.

Click here to read my post on the NAMI website.

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