The first time it happened, you might not have known what was going on. The shortness of breath, your heart pounding, the wanting to run away. The sense of dread and doom – feeling like you were going to die.
There is no instant way to escape a panic attack, unfortunately – you need to ride it out, as resistance makes it worse: your brain believes you’re in danger, and it fires signals to your body like your life depends on it… literally!
While you can’t fight your way out of your own survival mechanisms, there are ways to gradually reassure your brain that you are in fact safe, and it can stop the emergency protocol. Here are three suggestions:
1. Remind yourself that, as intensely unpleasant as your sensations are, they are feelings. They cannot hurt you. You are not going to die, even if it feels like it. Remind yourself of what is happening at a physiological level: your stress hormones are high right now – that’s why you’re experiencing those symptoms; it’s normal, it’s safe, it’s ok. Your brain is trying to take care of you. By making sense of your experience, you are helping your rational pre-frontal cortex regain control over your ancient limbic system.
2. Breathe in as deep into your belly as you can. Breathe out slowly, keeping the outbreath longer than the inbreath. That’s the way you breathe when there is no immediate danger in your environment: keep breathing in this pattern for a few minutes, for your brain to start registering safety.
3. There are parts of your body which produce delta waves when touched. Delta waves are the slowest electrical oscillations happening in your brain, typically when you’re sleeping. Rubbing your arms, cheeks, and the palms of your hands will help you to slow your brain activity right down, and introduce a sense of calm. For more information on this strategy, watch this video about “havening”: https://youtu.be/zXPGtT-6DAU
Of course, my hope is that there won’t be a “next time” for you – but if you do find yourself in the throes of a panic attack, or intense anxiety, consider alternating these strategies until they bring you relief. You could also stack them together – reassure your brain through self-talk, while deep-breathing and rubbing the havening points. Be patient with yourself; you will get through it.