The Art of Not Panicking
A straightforward six-step process for finding your calm place.
Posted Aug 06, 2018
What would your days look like if your mind and body were not hijacked by stress and anxiety?
I’m guessing, great, right?
What if I told you it is possible to learn the step-by-step process to achieve calm, clarity and most of all, feelings of in control…
Would you believe me? I’d wager the majority would not. And that is sad. Truth be told, it’s not entirely your fault. The apple doesn’t fall far from the anxious tree. The good news is the art of not panicking is hardly a mystery. What I’m about to share with you is nothing unique or revolutionary to the field of psychology.
My primary goal as a psychotherapist is helping adults, teens and co-parents cultivate calm and change as their central nervous systems collectively scream, “No! This doesn’t feel right. Leave us alone!” Did I mention the anxious mindset can be stubborn?
The most arduous task is cracking the code of ‘where to begin’ when nervous souls come to the therapy room for the first time. When people start counseling they want to know somebody gets them. I get it. We’re all unique and our stories are important. Not to throw the stressed-out baby with the bath water, but, 50 minutes goes by fast.
Here’s the thing—the patterns of anxiety are highly predictable (hello rapid heartbeat, tightening of the chest and labored breathing, plus simultaneous crushing catastrophic thoughts and runaway worries)—and the process of de-escalating from an anxious state is simple (not easy, but straightforward).
But rushing someone when they’re on an anxious roll is akin to losing them in the deep, dark seas of “I knew this wasn’t going to work—she’s just like the last shrink with her cold, clinical, ‘and how does that make you feel?’ and ‘what have you tried to feel less anxious?’ I’m outta here.’”
For the record—that first one—total rookie mistake. When someone tells you they haven’t dated in six months due to crushing fears of social phobia, or they’re on a sleep-deprivation bender due to high-conflict divorce court, let’s suspend the therapeutic rigmarole and assume the obvious—it feels awful.
Speaking of calling a spade a spade.
Here are common reasons the anxious mind is hard as hell to move from the emotional spewing stages to the productive problem-solving stages in therapy session:
- Predisposition toward anxiety-sensitive DNA
- Too many late nights scrolling Dr. Google
- Rigid, concrete, all-or-nothing thinking
- Lack of emotional regulation
- Unhealthy world view
- Benzo dependence
- Loose boundaries
…to name a few.
Before we dive into the steps of de-escalating from panic attacks, let’s clear up a few things:
Anxiety attack versus panic attack. In short, anxiety attacks differ in that an identifiable stressor causes the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Think, oncoming speeding car, preparing for state licensing board exams (not that I remember), etc. While the physical symptoms can feel overwhelming, the anxiety typically goes away when the stressor disappears.
Panic attacks can appear “out of the blue” or from a stressful event, but there is no immediate danger to the person. The randomness and lack of an obvious stressor can feel like losing control, dying, or having a heart attack. Panic attacks often last much longer than anxiety attacks and the person often avoids places and situations which exacerbate terrifying feelings. In addition to the panic attacks, people start worrying about having the next one, resulting in anticipatory anxiety.
About those trips to the Emergency Room… Depending on which research study cited, up to 75% of patients admitted to the ER with symptoms of chest pain may be suffering from anxiety disorders. Caveat: According to Reid Wilson, PhD: “For someone who has had a heart attack and also has panic attacks, together we identify, along with their physician, the symptoms that should trigger an immediate trip to the emergency room. Whether it turns out to be another panic attack or not, this person should treat those symptoms as a possible heart attack.”
Steps to Calm Down From A Panic Attack
1. Deactivate your brain’s alarm system. Recognize the physical stress signals in the body, which trigger runaway worries in the mind. Paying attention to the butterflies in your stomach, dizziness, feelings of going crazy/heart attack/ etc., means you recognize the obstacles blocking your way.
2. Awareness allows you to take control of the situation (and avoid unintentionally panicking yourself) by using your rational brain: “What am I choosing not to see in this situation?” The tendency is to catastrophize or think of the worst-case scenarios. Slow, deep breathing is your BFF.
3. Problem-solving mode versus over-reacting mode. It’s about emotional regulation. We defeat emotions with logic. Every.Single.Time. For some the process of problem-solving takes longer due to the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. For others, lifestyle changes go a long way, as does getting comfortable with mindfulness. People do not have panic attacks in the present. In reality, you’re reacting to a past action, or to a future event. Being mindful of the here-and-now will help you take immediate actions to calm down.
4. Rewire unhealthy, catastrophic thoughts. Regardless of where you are on the panic scale, the techniques of CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) are invaluable to changing the way your mind processes uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
5. Do differently. Anxiety loves rumination, avoidance, and staying stuck. You know what it loathes? Action.
At its core, anxiety is over-reacting to stress and worries, and under-reacting to problem-solving.
The art of not panicking lies in what you do when you’re not panicking. It’s the healthy habits done daily, with intention that make the difference. The last thing you want is to be caught off guard, flailing around and scrambling to find your calm, centered rational mind while in the throes of an anxious episode. As a psychotherapist for the past 15 years I can’t promise you’ll never have another panic attack. I can, however, offer you a 28-day guide based on therapeutic theories, exercises and strategies that have successfully helped my clients get off the couch quicker (click author biography for details).
(A version of this article originally appeared on wiredforhappy.com).
© 2018 Linda Esposito, LCSW