I’m SO excited to have an article published on Wondermind! If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, Wondermind is a mental health company with an awesome mission—to destigmatize and normalize mental health—in a super relatable way. The company was cofounded by singer/actress/producer Selena Gomez, her mom, Mandy Teefey, and business entrepreneur Daniella Pierson.
About the piece I wrote… Dealing with panic attacks definitely makes traveling more challenging, but I refuse to let it stop me. I love to travel with my family and the times we’ve spent exploring new places together are priceless.
If you want to see how I deal with travel anxiety, here’s the link to read more…
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.”
The medical terms for these intrusive thoughts are derealization (feeling withdrawn from one’s surroundings, as if the world isn’t real) and depersonalization (an out-of-body experience in which a person feels separated from his own self).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.
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.”
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.
(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?
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.
I love Meghan Trainor’s music. With empowering lyrics, her pop songs are upbeat, happy, and make me want to sing and dance. I’ve always pictured her that way too — bubbly, energetic, and confident. Maybe that’s why I was surprised when I heard her talk about her struggle with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.
But hold on… why would that surprise me?
As a mental health advocate and someone who has recovered from panic disorder, I know darn well it doesn’t matter what the person looks like on the outside, he or she can still have problems on the inside.
People have said to me, “How can you possibly have anxiety when you’re so calm all the time? It doesn’t make sense.” I shrug and think, I don’t know. I can’t help it.
That’s the thing. You never know.
I saw Meghan Trainor on NBC’s Today. She said the person who helped her “figure out” her anxiety was Today anchor, Carson Daly. A few months ago, Carson talked about living with anxiety.
“He’ll never know how much his video helped me and my family. I told them that’s how I feel, I just couldn’t explain it,” Meghan said. “I went up to him (Carson) and I was like, ‘You don’t know what you’ve done for me, but it was amazing.'”
That reminded me of a post I wrote earlier this year, An Awe-Inspiring Chain Reaction. NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan tweeted about his depression. That encouraged another NBA All-Star player, Kevin Love, to open up about his panic attacks. Which helped Carson Daly talk about his lifelong struggle with anxiety.
It was a chain reaction that gained momentum from the honesty and openness of each man.
And now, Meghan. She said when she was experiencing panic attacks, she assumed no one else felt that way. I used to assume that too.
I didn’t think anyone else in the world could possibly understand what I was going through. It didn’t cross my mind that others experienced the same scary panic symptoms. So I kept quiet and hid my fears. It was the worst feeling to be embarrassed and ashamed of something I couldn’t control.
One of the first steps in my recovery was when my doctor told me millions of other people have panic attacks. That shocked me. It was powerful to know I wasn’t alone.
We can’t underestimate the impact others can have on us. Hearing another person explain their challenges can be a turning point. It can clarify how we feel. And more importantly, it can help us realize we are not alone.
We must continue to speak openly about mental health. Don’t stop the conversation.
I’m grateful now for something I didn’t think was possible years ago, when I was first diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia — People are talking about mental illness.
Stigma is still strong, but it’s beginning to lessen. The conversation is open. Nearly every day, I hear someone speak out. Often there are news stories focused on mental health. Actors, singers, athletes, and famous people publicly share their stories.
People are acknowledging that mental illness is a real medical illness that should not be ignored.
Schools are starting to offer courses in mental health. Teens are learning about mental illness through programs such as Ending the Silence, developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Thousands of mental health organizations around the world have resources available to help those affected.
Things have definitely changed since I was a young girl, when I experienced confusing and frightening symptoms, which I kept secret. I knew my problem wasn’t normal and didn’t think anyone would ever understand. I didn’t dare speak up, in fear of being ridiculed.
It took me twenty years of suffering before I received medical help.
I’m not the only one who has waited so long. NAMI says that people who have a mental health condition typically wait eight to ten years after the first warning signs appear to get help. The main reason?
Most of the time, I was fine. I graduated from college, got married, and had two baby girls. But by my early 30s, my panic attacks became more frequent and more severe.
I was angry with myself because I couldn’t stop the symptoms. My internal monologue wasn’t very kind:
This is stupid. I worry too much. No one else feels this way.
What’s wrong with me?
Maybe it shouldn’t bother me when my heart beats too fast, and I get lightheaded and dizzy. It’s just how I am. So what if I feel sweaty and shaky, and start to black out? I need to be tougher when I think I’m going to faint. I have to calm down when I feel like running out of the place where I’m panicking.
Who does that? Get over it.
It’s the dumbest thing ever that I don’t want to drive because I’m scared of feeling panicky. People get annoyed when they’re stuck in traffic, but their hearts don’t pound and they don’t need to pull over to get hold of themselves.
And when I feel disoriented? That’s the worst. It’s like I’m living in a dream and things aren’t real, like an out of body experience. That’s creepy. I can’t let myself think that way. This is absolutely ridiculous. I’m so weird.
I should be able to stop it. Just STOP it.
No matter what I do, I can’t let anyone know. They’ll think I’m strange. I doubt a doctor would know how to help. Maybe I have a brain tumor. I don’t want to scare my family.
Whatever. I’m fine…
When I look back on how I used to talk to myself, it makes me sad. I was sick and needed help.
Growing up, I’d never heard anyone talk about mental illness. I had no idea my symptoms actually had a name: panic attacks, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder. I couldn’t believe it when my doctor told me that millions of other people suffer from it too.
And all that time, I thought I was alone.
I was shocked when my doctor said that medication could help me. I was even more amazed when the antidepressant worked.
When my daughter Talee was 10 years old, she started to show signs of panic attacks. It broke my heart to know that she had to deal with the same terrifying symptoms that I’d had.
Even though I’d been through it myself and knew that many people had anxiety, I still felt the stigma. I didn’t want Talee’s teacher or the other parents to know my daughter had a mental health issue. I didn’t want her labeled.
But I was NOT going to let my sweet girl suffer in silence and secrecy, as I’d had. I pushed the stigma aside with all my might, and reached out for medical help right away.
Thankfully, both Talee and I have recovered. And now, I speak out to reassure people that there is help available and they are not alone.
The conversation must continue. The more that people talk about mental health and mental illness, the less taboo it will be for future generations. Let’s end the stigma.
I’m super excited that one of my stories is being featured today on the NAMI National Blog. It’s about an incredible chain reaction that happened in March, between two NBA All Star players — DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love — and “Today Show” anchor and host of “The Voice,” Carson Daly.
I forget to be mindful, relax and enjoy life, and remember that everything will be fine.
My husband Alex and I have been making some big business and financial decisions lately, and I admit, it’s stressful. It’s a roller coaster — I go from being calm and excited one minute, to anxious and worried the next.
I prefer life to be simple and unchanged. Alex is more of a risk taker (although a very careful and logical one), and he enjoys change. I fully trust him and know I need to step out of my comfort zone more often.
I’m confident it’ll all work out. Change is good and inevitable. There’s a time to remain stagnant and a time to move forward.
Okay, I know all that, but still… I’m nervous.
This past weekend, Alex and I decided to go out for the day in a convertible. We wanted to have a Sunday Fun-day, like we didn’t have a care in the world.
At first I was all uptight about too much sun and wind. I pulled my hair back in a bun, put on my favorite baseball cap, rubbed sun screen all over my face, and put sunglasses on.
Alex backed out of the driveway, turned on the music, and off we went. We headed down a twisty mountain and it felt wonderful to be so close to nature while driving. I’m not used to being in a convertible. Normally our windows are up and it’s like being in a metal box, closed from the outside.
The sides of the mountain were almost near enough to reach out and touch. I noticed how lush and green the hills were from the recent rains. Mustard weed and flowers dotted the landscape with bright color. Two rabbits hopped in the wild grass and I hoped they’d be safe from coyotes.
As we drove past agriculture fields, Alex asked if I could smell the cilantro and onions. I breathed in deep and sniffed in the familiar scents. But something else happened too. I relaxed. It felt like the anxiety and stress were melting away.
I felt free. Or at least, free-er.
That feeling continued when we arrived at the restaurant for lunch. We laughed and chatted and savored a delicious fish meal. It was like we were on vacation. I wanted to bottle that feeling and keep it with me forever.
After walking around town, browsing shops, and licking every drop of an ice cream cone, we knew it was time to head home. I scooped my hair back and plopped the hat on top of my head.
We were half way home when I realized something. Here we are, in a convertible on a gorgeous spring day, blessed to be having a great time together, and I’m not taking full advantage of it. Loosen up, Jenny.
That’s when I yanked off my baseball cap and hair tie and let my hair fly. The wind whipped my hair and I didn’t care one bit if it got messy and tangled. Alex looked at me and smiled, then took off his hat.
I closed my eyes and let the wind take over. I laughed because it was hard to see with hair blowing in my face. The warm sun beat down and getting a sunburn never crossed my mind. I felt totally and completely carefree.
I let go.
I captured the moment in my mind, knowing I’d want to relive it again and again. I wished Alex would drive 100 more miles so that feeling could last longer.
We were back in our driveway much too soon.Second image courtesy of here
Whether I’m having an amazing, productive day or an overwhelming and stress-filled one — I always do something that makes me happy. It makes my good days even better, and my difficult ones a bit easier to manage.
It’s part of self-care. Being kind to myself and recognizing that it’s important to slow down and take comfort in activities that I enjoy. I don’t think of it as being selfish. It’s healthy.
Finding ways to de-stress is crucial for both my physical and mental health. On my journey recovering from anxiety and panic attacks, I learned how important it is to practice deep breathing and mindfulness. To take time out of the day to relax and not feel guilty for doing something I love and gives me a sense of peace.
That “something that makes my heart sing” doesn’t need to be extravagant or take up a lot of time. A small break during the day can rejuvenate me and clear my mind, leaving me ready to tackle the rest of my tasks and responsibilities.
Be mindful of the things you love and incorporate them into your daily life.
Here are some super simple, yet luxurious ways to pamper yourself:
Sit in a comfy chair, put your feet up, and read a book or magazine
Take a walk or hike and enjoy the nature surrounding you
Have lunch on the beach, near a lake, in the mountains
Make a cup of tea, latte or coffee and take a short afternoon break (a small piece of banana bread, scone or biscotti can make it perfect)
Browse around a favorite store or boutique (one of mine is Anthropologie), and take time to smell the pretty lotions and candles, feel the texture of the fabrics
Give yourself (or go to the salon for) a manicure and/or pedicure
Put on a face mask and take a bubble bath
Savor a piece of chewy caramel or dark chocolate
Light a candle while cooking dinner
Meditate and practice deep breathing, even for just 5-10 minutes
Use an essential oil diffuser while doing yoga poses or stretches
Take a technology break
I’m a list person, and love to cross off items I’ve accomplished. It’s so satisfying! But life isn’t all about racing to finish tasks and see how much you can get done in a day.
Life is meant to be noticed, appreciated, and enjoyed.
What’s the point of rushing through the day without doing something we truly love?
Find what makes your heart sing, then do it. Allow yourself the time to be kind to yourself.
All Things New is an amazing Young Adult book that I just read and absolutely loved!
I’m grateful that the lovely author, Lauren Miller, reached out to me after reading a post I wrote on NAMI’s national blog, detailing my experience as a presenter for NAMI’s Ending the Silence. I visit high schools and speak to students about mental illness. Very fitting, as Lauren’s book centers around a girl who has severe panic attacks.
All Things New is about 17-year-old Jessa, who has anxiety and panic attacks and doesn’t tell anyone. She becomes very good at hiding her secret and pretending. She gets in a horrific car accident, that leaves her with scars and a brain injury. She leaves her old life in California to live with her dad in Colorado. Her anxiety becomes worse. Until she meets Marshall, a boy with a heart defect who helps bring Jessa out of her closed-off world, into the broken, but beautiful, real world.
The theme running through the story is that we’re all broken, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of our broken pieces. The book shows how we can make it through; with love, kindness, and courage.
I recently had the chance to interview Lauren to find out about her life and her work as an author. Please join us…
Your latest book, All Things New, centers around Jessa, a teen with an anxiety disorder. Why did you want her to have a mental health condition, and specifically, panic attacks?
From the very beginning, I wanted All Things New to examine the notion of emotional and psychological wounds — the pain we carry that no one can see. For me, that pain was anxiety, which I hid for years. It was exactly the type of challenge I wanted to give Jessa, my protagonist, because anxiety is real but invisible, and it’s closely connected to identity, another core theme of the story.
After Jessa’s accident, she has a form of face blindness, where she sees scars and bruises on random people’s faces, that aren’t really there. So interesting, and that would really be hard to deal with! I’m curious to know how you researched that.
As with all my books, I reached out to experts for help! I emailed with my hero, Oliver Sacks (through his assistant, Kate) before he passed away, which was a total writer’s highlight. Dr. Sacks suffered from face blindness and hearing from Kate what he experienced was a great help. As my story progressed, Jessa’s condition became less like true face blindness and more like ‘regular’ brain injury-induced hallucinations. In addition to that Jessa also suffers from something called aphantasia, or mind’s eye blindness, which means she can’t see any mental images in her head. For that, I corresponded with a professor in England named Dr. Adam Zeman who helped me tremendously to understand a condition that, at the time I started writing, didn’t yet have a name! The science/research aspect of the writing process is one of my favorite parts of writing.
There’s a slightly spiritual theme, as Jessa goes through challenging obstacles to put her life back together. I don’t want to divulge too much, but I’m talking about the first man who helps her at the scene of the accident, and the counselor. To me, that was comforting. Why did you add the spiritual element?
For me, the world is both a physical and a spiritual place, with both aspects being equally real. I’ve experienced moments like Jessa experienced–inexplicable things, people showing up who can’t really be explained, odd coincidences that provide meaning and purpose. So it was natural for me to add these aspects to my story (in fact, all of my books have slight supernatural themes!)
Jessa has a special relationship with her dad. I loved what he said when she was afraid to drive again. “I want you to be free. Free from the panic and worry, free from all that terrible self-doubt I see in your eyes and blame myself for. But you have to want it too, Jessa. You have to decide not to let fear win.” That says a lot, doesn’t it? Not letting fear win.
YES! I love that line, too. It’s the advice I have to give myself, over and over again.
What do you want readers to come away with, after reading All Things New?
More than anything I hope my readers will come away feeling hopeful about the future. Whatever hard thing they are going through, there is wholeness and healing in store for them, even if they can’t see it yet. I also hope my readers with anxiety will come away knowing that they are not alone!
Are you writing your next book? If so, can you tell us what it’s about?
I am actually working on a movie script right now–an adaptation of my first novel, Parallel. It’s been so fun that I think my next project will be another script! I have an idea for a coming of age movie about a girl who’s boyfriend is sent to rehab her senior year of high school, loosely based on something I experienced. But there will be a fourth novel, for sure. I just don’t know what it’ll be yet.
Lauren has written two previous YA books, Parallel and Free to Fall. You can visit her at laurenmillerwrites.com.
You can find All Things New in book and Kindle edition on Amazon. Click here!
I’ve been thinking about panic attacks lately — not because I’m having them. But because both of my daughters have been dealing with anxiety, so it’s been on my mind.
Mackenzie and Talee are in their twenties. Along with inheriting imbalanced serotonin (from me), they also have the millennial stressors of working, living on their own, and being financially independent.
Talee called me the other night and we got into a conversation about possible triggers for panic and what to do when we feel it coming on. I hadn’t thought about this for awhile, and it felt good to revisit it. To be mindful of what might cause my anxiety, and actions I can take to stop it.
It’s amazing to feel empowered. To know that I’m in control of my panic, instead of it controlling me.
I used to have panic attacks every time I went to the grocery store, the mall, and when I drove. Here’s a list of some triggers that Talee and I talked about:
Bright fluorescent lights, like in offices or grocery stores
Big box stores that don’t have windows or an easy exit
Being hungry; can cause lightheadedness and dizziness, which can make you feel like you’re having a panic attack
Driving in traffic, especially stuck in the middle lane
Shopping at an inside mall
Working out in a crowded gym
Waiting in a long line or being in the middle of a long drive-thru line
Drinking coffee or soda; caffeine can make you jittery and anxious
Sitting in the middle of a movie theater, in the middle of a row
Getting a shot or seeing blood
Seeing or hearing someone throw up
Major life changes: a new school, graduation, a new job, moving into your first apartment, getting married, having a baby, getting a divorce, illness, an ill family member, and financial struggles
Talee and I discussed what to do if we feel panicky. We find it’s best to distract ourselves, instead of focusing on the panic attack. Here are some of our distraction ideas:
Concentrate on your breathing; slow inhales, slow exhales. Breathe deep, not shallow
Talk to someone
Be mindful of the present; look at your surroundings and remind yourself that you’re safe
Focus on an object and notice every detail about it
Say the alphabet or count to 100
Look at your phone; see what your friends are up to on Instagram and Snapchat, check emails and texts
Wear a rubber-band around your wrist and snap it to bring yourself to the present
Twirl a ring or bracelet
Keep a small object in your purse, like a tiny stuffed animal or squish ball, to touch and squeeze
It’s hard to think rationally or logically during a panic attack. Actually, it’s impossible. That’s why it’s important to feel prepared, and accept and acknowledge our panic. We feel more in control because we’re aware of what may trigger our anxiety. We’re empowered because if we do have a panic attack, we know what works best to stop it.