Panic attacks can be scary and are a common reason for people to see their GP. They are sometimes treated with medication but not everyone wants to go down this route. Here are some ways to help ease the symptoms quickly using the power of your own nervous system.
What are panic attacks?
Quite simply they are when the body and mind perceives some sort of “threat” to the person. Various changes take place very quickly to deal with the threat and help, at its root to keep the person safe. There may be feelings of overwhelming panic, a sense of “impending doom”.
The heart may race and the person may sweat, feel out of control or worry that they are going mad in some way. It can feel very unsettling and people can become very worried about having another attack.
It’s really important to remember that at its root anxiety and panic are protective factors designed to keep us alive. They are usually being over-protective and so to deal with panic, we have to learn to teach our nervous system that things are safe even if they don’t feel it. Then things will start to calm. (1)
Using the breath
Breathing in a specific way when panicky is really helpful. Commonly I’ve noticed that people will either stop breathing temporarily or breath shallowly. This tends to exacerbate feelings of panic. Slowing the breathing down and allowing the out-breath to be slightly longer than the in-breath helps to turn on the relaxation part of our nervous system. It’s best to practice this when things are less intense and the brain learns to calm itself quicker and quicker with practice (2).
Tapping with a couple of fingers under the chin and around the mouth for a few minutes also helps to switch on the calming part of the nervous system (3).
It’s not uncommon for people to feel embarrassed and then want to withdraw from others when they are experiencing panic. It can be really helpful to find someone who you feel safe with to sit with until the anxious feelings subside (which they will). Being with others who understand is profoundly calming. If you are with someone who is panicking, doing less is more. Generally it’s not helpful to try and talk them out of it or offer lots of suggestions. Calm yourself and sit with the person, perhaps encourage them gently to breath and wait. Strong emotions will generally peak and then start to fade.(4)
Using the phone
This can be useful in a public place as a kind of calming and distraction technique. When people feel anxious, the senses are often heightened and there can be a sense of wanting to hide and avoid eye contact with others. It’s becoming more and more socially acceptable for people to be looking at their phones in public and so this is a way of utilising this. It works best if it is prepared in advance. Go onto Google Images and find a picture with a repeating pattern on it – I like the “Where’s Wally” pictures myself because they are amusing and remind me of being a child. Screen-shot the picture and keep preferably several different pictures on the phone. Then breathe and count the number of squares / people / whatever takes your fancy. When I was testing this, I counted the number of people wearing hats on a Where’s Wally picture. Once I’d got them all, I moved onto another category.
This works because it engages the thinking part of the brain. This part can go offline with high anxiety and engaging it in a non-threatening task (Where’s Wally) combined with breathing helps to calm the nervous system down. (5)
The Tesco trick
This method came to me whilst standing in a queue in Tesco. It was around Christmas time and the store was crowded and noisy and I started to feel anxious for some reason. I was standing next to the drinks section and I started to notice the labels of some of the drinks. I realised that I could calm myself by spelling out the letters of the name of the drink one by one in my head. In this case it was a bottle of Tango. So the trick is to breathe in and say T, out and say A, in and say N and so on. Then move on to another label until you feel calmer. This can be done with any written word that’s out there – Road signs, place names, street signs. Obviously be mindful if you are driving and pull the car over and stop if necessary.
3. Personal communication from Kevin Laye (http://psy-tap.com ).
With huge thanks to Garner Thomson for his help with the contents of this article