Light Watkins is a Santa Monica–based meditation practitioner who has been teaching for the past eight years. This week, we’re sharing Watkins’ expert techniques for coping with anxiety and stress. To learn more, check out his mindbodygreen class, Meditation for Anxiety: Guided Sessions to Halt Panic Attacks & Feel Calmer Every Day.
A panic attack is by nature mentally debilitating, which means you can't rely on being in a state of mind to always remember what to do in the midst of an attack.
So if you're prone to panic attacks, it's recommended that you practice a specific breathing drill again and again in preparation for future panic attacks.
After all, once the attack begins and your breathing goes, it's hard to claw your way out. The reason we want to practice breathing is because hyperventilation is one of the primary inhibitors of your rational mind. This is why hyperventilating people often forget to exhale, which leads to an increased feeling of drowning or suffocating and increases the fear associated with the panic attack.
I recently took a survival training with a group of Navy SEALS, and one thing they were adamant about throughout the entire training is how staying relaxed under pressure is a learned skill, not the inherent human trait of our imagination.
According to the SEALS, when under the influence of anxiety or duress, humans will always default to their training, or lack thereof.
That's why SEAL training consists of frequent periods of starvation, sleep deprivation, torture, and extreme physical exhaustion.
SEAL ideology is that it doesn't matter how smart someone is. If they haven't practiced how to remain calm under duress, they will most likely default to panicking. The number one symptom is that they forget to breathe out, which is the one way to offset the debilitating effects of a panic attack and stabilize your nervous system.
Here is a simple breathing technique I learned from the SEALs for doing just that. Sit comfortably. Take five quick breaths in, followed by one long exhale. By the fifth breath, your stomach should be completely full. Then, breathe out completely, leaving your stomach completely empty.
If you find yourself prone to panic attacks, practice this breathing technique every morning upon awakening for five minutes while sitting up in bed. Once you develop a steady routine, begin to also practice it while walking, working, exercising, cooking, and in any other situation where a panic attack may strike.
This helps you draw upon your technique while in action, which is crucial, because you never know when a panic attack may strike.
Over time, you will be able to summon the technique whenever needed. Granted, it may not stop an attack from occurring, but it will lessen the intensity of the attack enough for you to seek additional care.