7 Self-Soothing Strategies To Neutralize Panic Attacks: A Psychiatrist Explains
When I was dealing with my own constant panic attacks, I became a bit of an anxiety savant.
During that time, my daily commute was about four hours. Most of that was on the train, where I experienced most of my panic attacks. At the height of my struggles, I was sorely tempted to give up on my education. I wasn’t the only person who would ever have not done something because of their anxiety.
But, hesitant to forfeit the hefty sum (almost $100,000) I’d put toward getting my degree, I began to research and experiment with strategies to quell my panic attacks. Here are a few of the methods that made the biggest difference for me.
My friend Em Burnett, a Qigong instructor, says our Yang energy rises when we panic. Indeed, whenever we feel anxious, we are stuck in our heads, and forget that we have bodies. Em advises that we bring our energy back down—that we ground ourselves. To do that, just tiptoe, then drop to your heels. Do this several times. Alternatively try walking on your heels, noting the contact with the ground, then press both your feet together.
2. Walk slowly.
My colleague Tom Cronin, a meditation teacher, puts it so beautifully: “If your mind is running a million miles an hour, your body is going to be hyper-stimulated." Whether we realize it or not, panic attacks happen when we’re in “flight” mode, which is why we try to move as quickly as the situation allows.
One of the easiest things we can do is to intentionally slow down, bringing awareness to the points of contact where the soles of our feet touch the ground. This action anchors us in the moment. Then we are able to bring attention to what’s going on around us.
Train yourself to notice a sight, sound, and smell separate from yourself. I’ve had clients tell me, “I’ve discovered all these new places to eat and shop, because I started focusing on the environment around me.” How’s that for a reward?
3. Hug yourself.
Thich Nhat Hanh, my favourite Zen master, says that “When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings.” When in a state of panic, we need the most love. My colleague and Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioner Carmen Dolz taught me the Big Hug position: Just cross your arms in front of your chest, fingertips under your armpits, and breathe deeply, dropping your shoulders as you exhale. The Big Hug is powerful because it connects the energy path of the heart with the nervous system. It opens the lungs, allowing our respiratory paths to expand, helping the breath reach us even more deeply. Essentially, it is the art of harmonizing ourselves, by using our hands as jump leads.
4. Splash your face with cold water.
Cold water stimulates our parasympathetic nervous systems, helping us to calm down by waking up our vagus nerves. This brings down the heart rate and activates the immune and digestive systems. Our skin has up to 10 times more cold receptors than warmth receptors, meaning splashing our face with cold water can have a quick, intense effect.
5. Breathe into a paper bag.
My friend Benita Scott, an EFT Practitioner, recommends breathing in and out of a paper bag. This capitalizes on the increasing carbon dioxide we get from re-inhaling our own breath. This triggers a calming reflex.
6. Practice bilateral stimulation.
When anxious, we get lost in our heads, where worries have infinite space to amplify. During panic attacks, beliefs like “I’m trapped,” “People will laugh at me,” and “I’m going to die” can consume us. Bilateral stimulation activates both hemispheres of the brain, distracting from the worry at hand. My favorite form of bilateral stimulation is to imagine passing a lime-sized ball between my right and left palm. Just keep doing it, and those difficult thoughts dissipate.
This meditation requires only three breaths and draws in support from the earth and the sky—and whatever symbolism or meaning we give to these.
- Take a deep breath, drawing air in from the soles of your feet, channeling support from the earth. As you exhale, use your breath to create a golden bubble of energy around you.
- Inhale deeply, drawing in air and light through the crown of your head from the sky. Exhale out a golden bubble of light energy around you.
- Take a third deep breath in, drawing love and air from around you, through your heart. Exhale through your heart, filling the space around you with love and protection.
I know firsthand how powerless it feels to have a panic attack. It’s so easy to get sucked into the belief that there’s something wrong with you—that you’re defective and unlovable. Panic attacks are really your body’s way of telling you that something in your life needs to change. Perhaps it’s your relationship with stress or that you’re embroiled in a toxic situation. Whatever it is, your body can help you heal. You just need to trust it, and trust that you’re worthy of a fulfilling and peaceful life.
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