What to do when you’re in a panic

You’re probably not reading a blog when you’re in the throes of a panic attack. So store this like a squirrel’s nut next time you’re running late to a meeting, if your’e on the metro when it starts smoking, or sitting calmly when suddenly a wave of overwhelming dread comes over you (like during turbulence).

When your heart and mind are racing, when you’re having a hard time taking a full breath, and can’t seem to calm yourself down, get to a safe place (at home, side of the road, strapped in to your seat, etc.) and try these tips:

  • Keep breathing, even if it’s shallow at the moment. Work up to counting to 4 when you inhale, hold for a 2-4 counts, then exhale to the count of 8. If you can get outside to take in some fresh air, do that.
  • Pause if you can, wherever you are, and focus on feeling your body and feeling gravity. If you’re sitting, feel your back and legs against the chair. If you’re standing, feel your feet on the ground and move your toes.
  • Seek physical stability and comfort. Sit or lean against a sturdy wall and let it fully support you. Ask for a bear hug from someone. Put on a big sweatshirt. Wrap yourself in a blanket. Physically applying gentle pressure to your body, as if containing your body, can notify your nervous system that it’s ok to calm down.
  • Avoid major decisions if you can. Come back to the grocery store later if you’re feeling claustrophobic. Don’t buy the car if you’re hyperventilating in the lot.
  • Don’t attempt to sleep if it’s nighttime and you’re just tossing and turning. Sit up or move to a comfortable room in the house (preferably not near a pile of dishes in the kitchen or a pile of papers in the office that may look overwhelming).
  • Don’t argue with your mind. It will be rapid firing every worst thought imaginable, and then will press “repeat” again and again and again. It will be hard to hear, read, or express any logical string of sentences. Know that this state will pass. In order to focus your mind away from the exaggerated fear, give your mind a distraction as if you were playing fetch with a dog until it gets tired. Try listening to a podcast. If that doesn’t work (as in, if you can’t concentrate for more than 1.5 seconds) pick up a book. Next, pick up a pen and paper and write stream-of-consciousness for 10 straight minutes (time yourself) without stopping or editing. Next, try a game (maybe Farm Animals?). Next try putting on your favorite movie or tv show.
  • Make yourself a cup of non-caffeinated herbal tea with chamomile, lavender, catnip, or skullcap in it. These herbs help tranquilize.
  • If you feel a cry coming on, let the tears flow. The act of releasing tears also releases stress hormones.
  • Avoid food as best you can until you’ve slowed your heart rate and breathing down a tad. Anything you eat under stress is hard for your gut to digest…it might turn it into an uncomfortable lump in your stomach or get flushed out via diarrhea. When you get to the point that food is ‘safe’ to eat, find something that’s grounding (with some healthy fat and protein to it, like an avocado, or a sweet potato with butter, or chili or some red meat).
  • Stay away from sugar sticks, red bull, double fried doughnuts, and cocaine.

If that’s all too difficult, reach for a pint of ice cream, say “I love you” to yourself, and wait it out. Then, read Rachel’s self-care checklist blog.

(If this happens to you often, seek help! Don’t suffer alone. We can help you or help find someone to help you.)


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