Panic is a useful thing when you need to run away, freeze/hide, or fight for your survival. Our bodies are designed to produce adrenalin for this purpose when it senses anything that feels, smells, sounds, or reminds us of danger. It can do this, sometimes, even when we’re not fully conscious of what it is we’re responding to.
If we have experienced trauma in our lives, our system may be on high alert and detect danger in situations that remind us of that trauma in some way, sometimes unconsciously and so send adrenalin through our bodies. Our minds notice that adrenalin and may believe that something is wrong in our bodies or that there is a real threat that we just haven’t yet identified, producing more adrenalin. It can be very difficult to to calm ourselves in this type of situation.
Sometimes, we carry a level of stress in our bodies that results in a lack of oxygen to our cells, at this point, our body will detect danger and produce adrenalin in response.
When panic is not useful, you will need to calm it in order to allow your body to relax and function.
The first thing you need to do is determine if you are actually in danger. Check out A Good Time to Panic for more on this. If you are not in danger, or if adrenalin is not useful, at this time, do the following:
1. Get adrenalin out of your system:
- Go for a run or bike ride and get your heart rate up to match the level of panic in your system
- Or, plank as long as you can.
- Or, if that is not possible, stand inside a door frame and lift your arms to push against it as hard as you can.
- Squeeze ice cubes (stop if your hands get numb)
2. Engage your prefrontal cortex:
This is the front of your brain that operates your logic, decision making and speech. Doing so pulls the blood away from the amygdala which reduces the amount of adrenalin it produces. Do this by:
- Counting your steps across a room
- Saying the alphabet backwards from Z
- The 5 Senses Exercise
When there is a lot of adrenalin running through your system, your instinct is to run, fight or freeze. It can be difficult to think clearly and know which of these, if any, are warranted. The blood moves from the front of your brain (pre-frontal cortex) where you make decisions and think to the back of your brain (amygdala or lizard brain) where thinking is not necessary we just go by instinct. This exercise is intended to move the blood back to the front of the brain, to re-engage the pre-frontal cortex and to do a thorough assessment of your surroundings to let your brain know if you are safe and if you no longer need the adrenalin rush.
*A NOTE of CAUTION: For some people, particularly those who have been in dangerous situations over long periods of time (combat zones or abusive situations) sometimes this exercise increases anxiety to a paranoia level where the mundane becomes fearful when focused on too intensely. If this is you, or you find your anxiety heightened during this exercise, do not continue.
Look. What do you see around you, name the object out loud or under your breathe, if more appropriate. What are the colours? What are the shapes?
Listen. What do you hear? Can you hear traffic, birds, trains, people talking? Can you hear your own breathe?
Feel. What is under your feet? Is it solid, smooth or soft? Are you sitting, what is under you? How does it feel? Use your hands to feel textures around you, the chair, the floor, a table, grass. Can you feel the texture of your clothing? Is it rough or smooth? Rub your arms or legs, how do they feel?
Taste. Is there a taste on your tongue? Can you remember what you last ate? Lick your lips, what do you taste?
Smell. Take a deep breathe. What do you smell? Car fumes or freshly cut grass, woodsmoke or a nearby restaurant.
3. Relax your muscles:
Start at your feet and work your way up, tensing each group of muscles for 15 seconds and then releasing.
– In through your nose for a slow count of 10, then hold for 4 counts then release for 12 counts. Repeat 5 times.
- Lift your arms above your head slowly, arms slightly bent as you breathe in and then breathe out as your arms come down. Repeat three times.
5. Calm your mind
Imagine a place you’ve been or would like to go where you feel completely at peace. Notice what you see (objects, people, colours); what you hear, what you see; taste and smell. Add reminders of this place to your environment.
6. Prevent Future Panic Attacks
- Set aside regular times of the day to do a body check in. Set an alarm to do so, each hour or at least, three times a day. Start at your head and scan your body for tension or other needs. Check: Do I need to get a drink of water, stretch, take a little walk, go to the bathroom, get something to eat, look out of a window or get a breathe of fresh air. Do some breathing exercises and muscle relaxation exercises.
- First thing in the morning and last thing at night, do breathing exercises and muscle relaxation, check out the Calm app or Headspace app for meditations to do at these times of the day.
- Check your thinking, are you feeding anxiety and panic through distorted thinking. Check out COGNITIVEdistortions for more on this.
For more on panic and anxiety, check out “Headline Distress Disorder”
Also check out Dealing with Intrusive Memories