You’re driving somewhere unfamiliar, people are honking at you, you’re lost, and you start to have trouble focusing (perfect timing, right?). You’re overwhelmed with the infinite tasks that work has dumped on you this week, and while panning over your to-do list, you start to notice that you’re having trouble breathing. You feel so overwhelmed during an argument with your partner that you start to feel stunned by the way your body is reacting to the stress. Does this sound familiar? Anyone who has experienced a panic attack can attest to how truly unpleasant they can be; many describe a panic attack as feeling like “the world is ending,” “tunnel vision,” “losing control,” and even “a heart attack.”
If you are part of the human race, you are bound to have felt this way many times in your life. One thing is for sure: they are not enjoyable. Though things will pan out and you won’t be in this state forever, it certainly doesn’t feel that way when in the middle of an episode. When you get to this state of arousal, it is an indication that you need to attend to our nervous system.
The good news is that there are techniques and coping skills to help manage panic attacks and overwhelming stress. Here are five ways to regulate your nervous system (calm your body and mind) so that the world doesn’t feel like it’s ending (because odd are, it’s not):
The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a grounding exercise that one can utilize in any environment. The activity can help us negate panic attack symptoms when on planes, in cars, in the minutes leading up to important job interviews, or while we are in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Note five objects in your environment that you can see; you may choose to say the names of the objects out loud or intentionally search for objects of the same color. Then, four objects you can touch; this could be feeling the soft fuzz on your sweater, your feet on the ground, the cool metal from a ring on your finger, and a gentle breeze. After, shift your attention to three things you can hear; it may be birds chirping, the hum of the air conditioning, or the friendly chatter of people. Next, focus your attention on two things you can smell; it could be freshly cut grass or the smell of perfume. Lastly, focus your attention on something you can taste; if you have access to a snack, gum, or candy, focus on the taste.
Eat candy…yes, really!
Speaking of taste, eating sour or spicy candy can interrupt the course of a panic attack by providing a gustatory distraction. Essentially, the extremely sour or spicy sensation takes our attention away from the panic symptoms, grounding us in the present moment and veering us away from the escalating panic attack symptoms. Oftentimes, therapists will have such candies in their office for this very reason.
Cool down – a sensory grounding technique.
Sensory grounding techniques can help take us out of a state of panic. Oftentimes during panic attacks, we may start to feel hot and stifled. To counter this and bring us back to the present moment, we can splash cold water on the face (yes, like we see in movies), hold an ice cube in our hands and focus on the sensation, or place a wet washcloth on the back of our necks. Experiencing the sensation of cold water can be a welcome shift in focus from uncomfortable panic attack symptoms.
Breathwork is another technique that can be used anytime and anywhere, referring to intentional use of the breath to reach a state of calm. This can be achieved through the four-square breathing technique, also called “box breathing”; this exercise involves inhaling for a count of four seconds, holding the breath for four seconds, releasing the breath for four seconds, holding the lungs empty for a four-count, and then repeating the process. In addition to helping manage panic symptoms, research on breathwork suggests that it is useful for stress management and reducing blood pressure. We can also pair our breathwork with a calming mantra such as “I am safe and I will get through this.” Some may even find guided meditations especially helpful when doing breathing exercises.
Seek Therapeutic Help.
Though coping skills are wonderful tools to have in your kit, it is also important to get to the root of the anxiety, panic, or overwhelm where it can be directly addressed. Therapists can provide empathy and compassion while helping you work through the root of the issue. For help with this, more tips, and attentive support, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at Love Heal Grow.
Hi, I’m Ashley Barnes, therapist for individuals and couples at Love Heal Grow Counseling.
I help individuals and couples who seek to improve and enhance their relationships, those who wish to heal from painful experiences and navigate big life changes, and those who aspire to improve their mental well being.
You can read more about me or schedule an appointment here: About Ashley