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  • Writer's pictureAmy Duffy-Barnes

Calming Down During a Panic Attack

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

Your chest squeezes in and you feel like you can't catch your breath. Your heart speeds up and your mind is numb. You are trying to think, you are telling yourself to calm down, but your body isn't listening to your brain. You may feel confused and unsure of what is happening to you, you can feel fear but can't always identify where it is coming from. Your body has gone into fight or flight. Your body's alarm system is going off loudly.

To recover from a panic attack you want to calm your body down, reducing fight or flight to the point where your brain can regain control of the situation. Your heart is pounding, your breathing is shallow, blood is flowing outwardly to your muscles and your vision is narrowing. Your brain is being flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, crazy chemicals designed to help you fight or flee. But if there is no reason to fight or flee, you want to reverse this process as quickly and calmly as possible. The first step is to calm your body down. After the body is calm we can reengage your brain to work through this. 

1. I am Calm

The goal of this phase is to bring your body out of fight or flight. First place one hand gently and firmly over your heart and one on top of your belly. Breath in through your nose, gently and  slowly, counting to seven. Feel your stomach expand outward, pushing your hand away from your spine. Gently hold your breath to the count of two and then calmly release the air out through your mouth, counting three, four, five, six, seven. As you breath outward feel your hands gently and slowly move back in towards your body. 

2. I am Grounded

The goal of this phase is to ground yourself in the present moment. By balancing and centering yourself you become mindful of yourself and of the world around you. You exist only in this present moment. Worry and anxiety exist mostly in the past (worrying about things we can't change) or in the future (worrying about things that will most likely never happen). We create moments of mindfulness by using our five senses to lock ourselves into this moment in time. First close your eyes, and focus on what you hear, listen carefully to all of the noises in your environment. Open your eyes and focus on what you see, notice shapes, colors and textures. Really see the world around you, notice the details, notice the space in between objects. What can you taste? What does your body feel like...  can you feel a breeze on your body, the temperature of the room, what do your clothes feel like on your body? What do you smell?

If you have enough time and you still do not feel grounded try a progressive muscle relaxation. Tighten your face, squeeze your eyes tight, scrunch up your nose, tighten your mouth, hold for a few seconds then gently relax. Feel the difference between the two states, tense then relaxed. Squeeze your shoulders up to your ears, feeling tension in your neck and shoulders, hold then relax. Again, as you release the tension feel the softness of your relaxed shoulder and neck muscles. Roll your shoulders a few times. Now tighten your fists and tighten your arms. Hold for a few seconds and then relax the muscles.  notice the relief in your muscles and shake your arms out. Tighten your stomach in and then relax, next follow this procedure with buttocks, then your upper and lower legs, then your feet. Each time you tense your muscle groups, notice the tension for a few seconds, then relax and shake out your muscles, feeling the gentle softening of each muscle set. 

3. I am in Control

Now it is time to reengage the brain, firing up your prefrontal cortex and turning off your fight or flight alarm. Ask yourself 'what am I afraid of?', 'what do I fear?'. When you find this answer decide on a scale of 1 to 10 what is the level of threat of the thing that you fear?  A shoe lace untied is a level 1 event. You should probably tie that before you fall over. If you wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of the smoke alarm and you smell smoke, this is a level 10 event. Once you have  identified the level of threat for what you fear take a quick numbered inventory of the strengths you have to overcome this threat. 

Life flows and we need to flow with it. We do not 'fight' the fight or flight response, we gently work our way through it, turning off the alarm system. Accept your panic and anxiety, your alarm system has simply misfired. Feel compassion for yourself. You are a human being doing the best you can, on a journey that is sometimes hard.  You are now calm, grounded and in control. 

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