5 Ways to Stop Panic in Its Tracks
For those who suffer regular panic attacks, feeling suddenly dizzy, clammy, and out of breath is all too familiar. Ongoing treatment methods like cognitive behavioral therapy are important to address the underlying causes of panic, but what tools can help address panic in the moment? We spoke to two experts—Christine Carville, LCSW-R, a New York-based psychotherapist, and Megan Gunnell, LMSW, a Michigan-based psychotherapist—on how to minimize moments of panic as you feel them coming on.
1. Do 5 Jumping Jacks
One of the most frequent concerns of Carville’s patients about panic is whether they will pass out, die, or suffocate. She tells them it’s impossible for this to happen during a panic attack. “While you might feel dizzy, lightheaded, or short of breath, these are all consequences of having too much oxygen or too little carbon dioxide in the blood because of the changes in breathing that occur when you become anxious,” Carville says. To combat this, try doing five jumping jacks. In so doing, you prove to your body that you are neither having a heart attack nor suffocating. It’s basically a trick to bypass your emotions.
“Most people who experience anxiety avoid the things they fear, so they never experience lasting relief. Because avoidance fuels the fear, anxiety mushrooms. In order to be cured of the anxiety or panic, you’ll have to face the thing you fear most,” Carville says, although she also recommends working with a supportive therapist to discover the root causes of your anxiety.
2. Try the Ice Diver’s Technique
When you feel panicky, flushed, or emotionally overwhelmed, take a large bowl or sink and fill it with ice cubes and water. Take a deep breath. Submerge your face (particularly your forehead, eyes, temples, nose, and upper cheeks) for fifteen seconds. Come up, breathe, take another deep breath, and submerge again. Repeat as often as you need until your nervous system has calmed. This technique stimulates the “dive reflex,” which is what happens when the body is submerged in freezing cold water and conserves energy to survive. Anxiety, at this point, is unnecessary and dissipates.
3. Breathe into a Paper Bag
Sometimes even before a full-on panic attack arrives, anxiety can cause our breathing patterns to change. Carville explains that this change can cause further panic symptoms to appear. “Hyperventilation-induced panic attacks happen when we become anxious and our breathing pattern changes,” she says. “Sometimes when we’re stressed or anxious, we ‘overbreathe,’ typically through the mouth, which can lead to a shortage of carbon dioxide.” To quickly fix this pattern, breathe into and inhale from a paper bag until you start to feel calmer.
4. Drink a Tall Glass of Water
When it comes to treating panic, Gunnell is a proponent of preventative care, like getting regular sleep and working out, but she also suggests drinking an entire glass of water when you feel it coming on. “Taking a moment to pause and drink a glass of water does two things,” she says. “First, it rehydrates us, which can help lower an accelerated heart rate due to even slight dehydration, and, second, it's like a mini mindfulness exercise. The act of drinking a full glass of water is a sensory one that brings us into the moment in front of us rather than allowing our attention to spin into future worry or anticipatory anxiety, which can create a feeling of panic.”
5. Repeat “I” Statements Out Loud
Gunnell reminds us that we are heavily influenced by the power of suggestion. She recommends repeating “I” statements like “I am safe, I am calm, I am peaceful,” as they send an important message to your mind and body. “Calm thoughts create a peaceful feeling, and that peaceful feeling can actually help you reduce the production of cortisol and adrenaline that panicked and anxious thoughts create,” Gunnell explains.
Also, try using “I” statements in moments when panic hasn’t peaked. “When we invest in our self-care, we build better resilience. If we're sleeping well, eating well, exercising on a regular basis, well-hydrated, and we have good outlets for stress, we have an advantage to coping with anxiety and panic,” she says.
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