COPING WITH PANIC

Jessica Herz, LMHC

Man holding his head in elevator having panic attack

Most individuals have experienced panic at some point in their lives. Experiencing a feeling of panic can be very scary, especially at times like these, with the COVID-19 pandemic on every news channel. Panic may feel like the only way to react to the situation. Panic is a normal human instinct. Our brains are wired for survival, and this is their way of keeping us alive. However, in some situations, we do have control over what we should or should not panic about. Questioning why we panic, and becoming self-aware of the way we respond to events in our lives, can provide us with some much-needed answers. With that being said, we must always remember: The only thing we can control in life is how we respond to things that happen to us. So, how do we know if it is helpful or harmful for us to panic in a particular situation? Later in this article I will discuss alternative ways of coping with panic in stressful situations, but first let’s explore what panic looks like.

Panic can take on many forms because of the multitude of symptoms involved. Some symptoms are cognitive, and some are physical. Examples of symptoms are: difficulty breathing, uncontrollable thoughts, excessive worry, the inability to slow down, feeling like your heart is racing, feeling sweaty, having a feeling of losing control, feelings of impending doom, chest pains, lightheadedness, increased blood pressure, feelings of choking and more. Sometimes, panic can look more cognitive- meaning more in your head, and less of a physical reaction. But a lot of the time, panic is more physical consisting of bodily reactions.

Here are some suggestions on how to cope with situations more productively before panic sets in:

1. Learn how to recognize the early thoughts that contribute to future panic. Maybe you have more anxious thoughts than usual or thoughts that may make you feel out of control. These thoughts could be felt minutes, hours, or even days before panic presents itself. Learning to recognize these triggering thoughts before the reaction of panic becomes unbearable or uncomfortable is vital in decreasing the chances of panic setting in.

2. Learn how to recognize the behaviors that contribute to future panic. Are you more tired than usual? Feeling more fatigued or stressed out? Are you getting physically ill? Are you eating healthy and taking care of yourself? Are you drinking more coffee than usual or using substances to cope with your feelings and thoughts? All of these behaviors can contribute to future panic due to the increased stress they physically put on the body.

3. After recognizing thoughts and behaviors that happen before a panic, go ahead and put into place healthy self-care actions. Maybe you need to take a day off from work to regroup and re-energize? Maybe you need to take a warm bath or go for a walk outside to clear your mind?

The goal is to identify the thoughts and behaviors that happen before the panic behaviors start to minimize the chance of having a panic attack or future panic behaviors. Nevertheless, if you are in a situation where panic has already begun, that doesn’t mean there is not a way of coping with the panic, and working through it.

Here are some suggestions on how to cope with situations more productively while panic is currently a problem:

1. Deep breathing techniques. Breathing techniques are more than just breathing or telling yourself to breathe. The skill and practice of deep breathing can lower blood pressure, decrease stress, can relieve pain, and even more. Use this script to help you learn how to speak to yourself and walk yourself through a breathing exercise when feeling panicked:

“Okay- now relax… and breathe in… 1…2…3….4… and breathe out 1…2…3…4… Breathe in… relaxation… breathe out… stress… Now again…slow down…breathe in …1…2…3…4…” And repeat. Repeat for as long as you need to, in order to begin feeling calmer and less panicked. This is great for coping with panic.

2. Think of a happy moment or your happy place (option: write about it)- Think of a moment or a place that makes you feel happy. Now, in the most detail possible, describe and really imagine yourself at your happy place or happy moment. To help with detail, think about the people you were around during this time, how the air smelled; the colors and shapes of the objects around you. Think about the sounds around this moment, and the way the air felt on your skin. Here is an example and script you can say when experiencing that happy moment/ happy place:

“I like to think about a wide open beach, no one around except for me. It is morning time and the humidity is low. There is a perfect breeze that gently moves my hair back and forth. It feels like it is the perfect temperature out; not too hot and not too cold. I am wearing a t-shirt and shorts and my toes are digging slightly into the sand. The sounds around me consist only of soft waves, brushing up against my feet and the water feels smooth as it touches my toes. The color is clear and see-through. The water is a perfect temperature, just brushing up on my feet after each wave passes and moves gently back into the ocean. The sun is shining on my face; not too brightly, but just enough to feel warm and comfortable. I am at complete peace in this moment. My shoulders relax, my face relaxes, and my body feels like it is melting into the sand. I am content at this moment. I can always find this moment if I want to. It is always with me.”

3. Focus on something positive; something to change your current train of thought – It is important to have this option for healthy coping because it can be used any time you want to, just like the happy moment/ happy place. Some examples are: Call a friend that you know who will make you feel better or laugh; Text a funny picture to a friend or family member, and wait for their response; Put on your favorite song that makes you feel good.

4. Step Outside/Change your physical position- Changing your surroundings can change your train of thought. Go outside, look up at the sky and think about all the things in your life that you are grateful for. Enjoy the different colors you see and the way the air feels. Or stay inside and go lay down, go sit down in a different room, go make a bath or take a shower and soak your body in cold or hot water.

With these skills in mind, we can cope differently with our situations that used to cause us panic. Learning how to identify your thoughts and behaviors before panic sets in is the most effective way to keep these feelings under control, no matter what situation you may find yourself in. Panic is not always necessary. Self-care and self awareness are the keys to changing our thoughts and behaviors, which can lead to happier, healthier lives.

Jessica Herz is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. She specializes in personality disorders, mood disorders, anxiety, and addiction. Working with individuals of all ages, she implements an individualized approach to helping clients better understand their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. She provides individual, couples, and family counseling and therapy services. Learn more about Jessica and her private practice at www.herzcounselinggroup.com