Maths and mental health: dealing with panic

Big disclaimer here: I'm not a mental health professional. I'm someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression. If you are experiencing regular panic attacks, or struggling with depression, please seek medical help. I endured many years of misery because I was too stubborn to go to a doctor or counsellor. Don't be like that. That's daft.

This could have been an Ask Uncle Colin piece, but I think it's a bit more general than that. In the aftermath of a recent outbreak of anxiety, someone asked me how I dealt with panic attacks, and I wanted to share my routine in case it helped others.

Here's what I do:

0. Have a routine

More important than any of the details here is, know what you're going to do in an emergency. There's a reason schools do fire drills: it's so everyone knows what to do if there's a real evacuation, and everyone has the best chance of getting out unhurt. With panic attacks, before I had a routine, I'd often spiral into more and more frantic stages of panic and get more and more exhausted.

1. Recognise the symptoms early

There’s a particular kind of discomfort that I can recognise as the start of an episode, and saying to myself “ok, this is something I need to deal with immediately” is the first step. Treating it as a physical problem (like a burn or a headache or something) helps me keep it in context; I used to beat myself up by saying “I should be stronger than this” or “There’s nothing wrong, get on with it.” That’s not the right thing for me; mental strength isn’t never getting panicky, it’s coping with it when I do.

2. Get to a safe space

That might be excusing myself to get a glass of water, it might be swimming to the shallow end, it might (in some cases) just be closing my eyes and zoning out for a few minutes. Wherever possible, somewhere quiet and alone.

3. Breathe

I take a few minutes to concentrate on my breathing: my counsellor taught me to breathe in for seven beats and out for eleven, but who knows if there’s science behind that. Just breathe: I’m not thinking “I’ve got to get the rest of the shopping so I have something to eat tonight” or “I’ve still got a dozen lengths to do” or “this music is very loud”, I’m just focussing on breathing. I’ll notice my heart rate, too; once it’s returned to something like normal, I can start to think about what to do next. (I know I make that sound easy. I’ve been doing it once in a while for a decade. I’ve had plenty of practice.)

4. Come up with next steps

Sometimes, that’s ‘get the hell out of Dodge’. If I can avoid that, I will. More often it’s “There’s 30 minutes of this to endure. I can break that down into sections. See how I’m doing in ten minutes.”

5. Do something nice afterwards

Maybe some interesting (or even just mechanical) sums; maybe coffee and a cake. Just something to say “I muddled through that and I’m ok now.”


It’s not foolproof (some days I’m more foolish than others), and it’s always a big hit to my energy, but it gets me through.

What about you? Any tips? Feel free to leave a comment below1 !

Colin

Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. Note: Please be especially kind in the comments. []

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I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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