5 tips to calm yourself when panicking

We’ve all panicked! Panic is universal, and our general tendency towards panic is extremely normal. The fact of the matter is that panic thrives because we so sincerely overestimate its power. In the grip of an attack, we swerve towards those dire and dark corners of our mind. We think “This is it,” or “I’m not going to come back from this,” or even “Am I dying?”

Isn’t it incredible how readily and powerfully we convince ourselves that doom is imminent? If you’re anything like me, you’ve found yourself wishing for some way to trick yourself out of it. I’m here to tell you that it’s way easier than you think. Before we start, what’s a panic attack? For those who’ve been lucky enough to dodge this very common phenomenon, a panic attack in part encompasses the processes by which our bodies cope with perceived stress. When we talk about a Panic Attack or Anxiety Attack in this context, we’re referring to an incident in which the stress response is activated despite the apparent absence of the stressor. We also mean an instance in which the severity of the stressor is far outmatched by the degree of the stress response.

The symptoms include, but are not limited to:

• Sweating

• Shortness of breath

• Chest pressure or pain

• Confusion

• Emotional distress

• Nausea

• Feel like crying

*for a full list, see more information from the Anxiety Centre

I know, I know, you’re thinking “Wow that’s like every symptom that anyone could ever have.” How right you are! Therein lies the real problem of a panic attack – they feel so real and so utterly catastrophic. Oftentimes because the symptoms are so diverse/intense and the trigger so seemingly innocuous. The victim has no clue what’s going on. This can make an attack so much worse. We fear what we do not understand. Keep these tips in mind the next time you feel a panic attack coming on.

1. Remind yourself that a panic attack is not fatal.

It’s so easy to let the overwhelming wave of fear carry you to the absolute worst conclusions. It helps to remind yourself that you aren’t going to die. I know it sounds silly, but acknowledging the reality of the situation can ground you. Coming back to earth from the dizzying heights of panic is the goal here. One way to achieve this is to repeat “I’m not going to die” as a sort of hypnotic mantra. Once you allow yourself to accept that the stakes aren’t life or death, the situation will begin to naturally deescalate.

2. Regulate your breathing Panic can be exacerbated by rapid, short breaths.

By engaging in diaphragmatic breathing, you will increase the flow of oxygen to your brain and trigger a tranquilizing mechanism. It’s just like the stress response, but it works in your favor. When you stop and take deep breaths, you decrease your heart rate, your muscles relax and your blood pressure decreases. It’ll also pull you out of that panic feedback loop – rapid breaths lead to panic, panic leads to rapid breaths which lead to more panic. Breathing from the diaphragm is a great first step to take once panic has kicked in.

3. Tactile Sensations: Use your senses to distract

Panic can be like a trance – once you lock into it, it’s all you can focus on. You shut everything else out. Distraction is the number one enemy of panic. The less you focus on the panic sensation, the sooner it’ll fade. This seems counterintuitive – but know that nobody’s telling you to just “not think about it,” (or if they are, they don’t have your best interests in mind). On that note, the Tactile sensation can really help you snap out of the panic trance. Maybe this means touching a comforting stone you carry with you, playing with a fidget spinner (yes, they have practical uses). If you can shift your focus away from panic and onto a physical sensation of some kind, it will really help.

4. Phone games!

Follow me here – In the same way, that a tactile sensation can snap you out of a panic, playing a game on your phone also has a similarly soothing effect. In fact, a team of Swedish researchers conducted a study where they had survivors of motor vehicle accidents play the puzzle game Tetris while waiting for care in the emergency room:

Researchers found that those who played Tetris as part of the experience had fewer intrusive memories of the trauma in total over the week immediately following the accident than the other group. They also found that the intrusive memories diminished more quickly. This fit the researchers’ hypothesis that playing Tetris, a visually demanding game could prevent the intrusive aspects of the traumatic memories from becoming consolidated in the mind.

Not only will the game distract you and deescalate the panic you’re feeling, it may also prevent future episodes triggered by intrusive memories of prior panic attacks. So download Tetris or some other visually demanding mobile game when you get the chance and take comfort in knowing that when panic strikes, you’ll be able to puzzle your way back to serenity.

5. Know Your Triggers

It’s impossible to know exactly when, where, and why a panic attack will happen – mainly because many times the cause is a simple bodily misfiring of sorts. But it’s important to try and deduce what your attacks may have in common. Maybe public speaking stresses you out to the point of an attack, maybe it’s heights or enclosed spaces. No matter what your potential trigger is, knowing is half the battle. And that’s not to say that you should avoid triggering situations. Paradoxically, avoiding scary situations can actually amplify the amount of stress they cause when they do happen (remember earlier: ‘we fear what we don’t know?) If we fear what we don’t know, then logically we won’t fear what we DO know.