“Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination,” said the 19th century writer Christian Nestell Bovee.
As everyone who has ever experienced a panic attack knows, there is nothing imaginary about the way you feel. I’ve tried to convince my husband on countless occasions, in the middle of an attack, that I was dying. Many people I know have driven to the emergency room convinced they were having a heart attack.
The physiological symptoms are so acute and so real that you can’t believe that your mind is partly to blame. The word “anxiety” seems way too lame to attach to the sweat, racing heartbeat, and sheer terror of what you are feeling.
At the point of my life in which I was most depressed and anxious, when my kids were preschoolers, I would carry a paper bag around with me in case I had a panic attack. It would help stabilize my breathing so I wouldn’t hyperventilate and pass out during their karate practice right as Mr. Joe was telling them to use their “black belt spirit” to control their thoughts. Since then, I’ve graduated to other techniques that prime my parasympathetic nervous system when I start to feel panic and help calm me down before I get to that painful and embarrassing place. Here are some of them.
1. Breathe Deeply
Every relaxation technique that mitigates the stress response and halts our “fight or flight or I’m-dying-get-the-heck-out-of-my-way” reaction is based in deep breathing. I find it miraculous how something as simple as slow abdominal breathing has the power to calm down our entire nervous system. One way it does this is by stimulating our vagus nerve — our BFF in the middle of a panic — because it releases a variety of anti-stress enzymes and calming hormones such as acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin. In another blog, I go over three basic approaches: coherent breathing, resistance breathing, and breath moving. But really, all you need to do is inhale to a count of six and exhale to a count of six, moving the breath from your chest to your diaphragm.
2. Splash Water on Your Face
Have you ever noticed that when you splash cold water on your face, it changes your perspective — if only for a minute? Research shows that cold-water face immersion produces physiological changes by stimulating the parasympathetic system. It quickly rouses the vagus nerve (our calming buddy), bringing down our heart rate while activating our digestive and immune systems. Apparently the area behind our eyeballs is an easy and powerful locus of stimulation for the vagus nerve.
3. Take an Epsom Salts Bath
Your eyeballs aren’t the only things that benefit from the healing powers of water. If you have the time, immersing your entire body into an Epsom salts bath can possibly reverse your stress response. Epsom salts are a mineral compound containing magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen. When used in a warm bath, they allow magnesium to be easily absorbed into the skin, which promotes a feeling of calm and relaxation. According to a 2012 study in the journal Neuropharmacology, magnesium deficiencies induce anxiety, which is why the mineral is known as theoriginal chill pill.
4. Massage Your Scalp
I wish I could afford a massage every time I felt anxious, because research shows it clearly shifts a person’s biochemistry. According to a study published in theInternational Journal of Neuroscience, massage therapy decreased cortisol levels by as much as 31 percent and increased serotonin by 28 percent, and dopamine by 31 percent. Scalp massages are particularly beneficial because they send blood circulation to the brain and reduce the muscle tension in the back of the head and neck. With practice and a few tips, you can learn how to give one to yourself. I use a little bit of lavender essential oil because it can be very calming. A study from Osaka Kyoiku University in Japan found that lavender oil reduced mental stress and increased alertness.
I mentioned this technique in my blog 10 Instant Ways to Calm Yourself Down, which includes more ideas on how to slow panic. After animals escape from a predator, they don’t engage in an intellectual conversation with their peers about what it was like to almost be dinner for a family of five. No. They shake. As American pop star Taylor Swift sings in “Shake It Off,” moving our bodies in a primal fashion can simply be the best neurological exercise we have for loosening the noose of fear that often hangs around our necks, and for moving forward like a creature who refuses to be anyone’s dinner. Don’t know where to begin? Try this shaking meditation by meditation teacher Pragito Dove.
I have prayed my way through many a panic attack. Mostly I uttered the words, “Please, God, end this!” But you need not possess a deep religious faith to benefit from contemplation. Reciting a mantra over and over again, something as simple as the word “peace,” can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm you down. Most of the world’s religions use prayer beads as part of their meditative exercises. I find holding the rosary and moving the prayer beads as I say a Hail Mary over and over again — even if my mind is somewhere completely different — is one of the best activities I can do when I’m panicking. I even sleep with a rosary. It calms me.
7. Do Rabbit Pose
Ideally, it would be great to attend a yoga class where your breath gets shallow and the mind takes over, but that’s hard to do as a confident, cool mom who pretends to have her life together when you’ve got deadlines to meet and you need to pick your kids up in five minutes. If you have one minute and privacy, try Rabbit Pose, where you’re sitting on your heels Japanese style with your knees and feet together. Reach back behind you and grab your heels with either hand, palms down. As you look at your stomach, lower your chin to your chest and curl your torso slowly until your forehead is touching your knees and the top of your head is touching the floor, lifting your hips into the air. Rabbit Pose relieves tension in the neck, shoulders, and back, where we carry most of our stress. It’s especially therapeutic for depressionand anxiety because it compresses the thyroid and parathyroid glands and moves blood to the brain.
8. Listen to Binaural Beats or Waves
Some of my friends swear by binaural beats, a technology that uses low-frequency tones and brainwave entrainment to influence mood and provide control over pain. A few recent studies show that the use of binaural beats, or audio therapy, can significantly reduce anxiety, at least during cataract surgery, and can even help symptoms of ADHD in children and adolescents. Personally, I just like to listen to ocean waves. If I close my eyes and imagine myself at the beach, concentrating only on the ebb and flow of the water, I can often stabilize my heart palpitations enough to go to a semi-happy place, or at least to not obsess so much about whatever is causing me panic.
9. Warm Your Hands
Did you know that whenever we get stressed, our hands get colder because blood is being fed to the areas of tension in our shoulders and hips in a fight-or-flight response? Warming our hands, then, reverses the stress response and triggers parasympathetic relaxation. A number of studies report that we can lower blood pressure with hand warming. I go for the obvious route — holding a hot cup of tea, sitting in a warm bath, etc. But you can also visualize activities that warm the hands — sitting in front of a hot fire, curling under the covers — and generate a relaxed response that way, too!
10. Eat Dark Chocolate
If all these things seem like way too much work, there’s one last technique that I think you’ll like: Simply eat lots of dark chocolate. Not the Hershey’s bar that says “dark chocolate” but has much more sugar than cocoa — shoot for at least 85 percent cocoa or higher. Dark chocolate has one of the highest concentrations of magnesium in a food, with one square providing 327 milligrams, or 82 percent of your daily value. As I said earlier, magnesium is our calming friend. The only other foods that are as concentrated are squash and pumpkin seeds. Dark chocolate also contains large amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid that works as a precursor to serotonin, and theobromine, another mood-elevating compound. I find that eating a few squares of Lindt’s 90% Cocoa EXCELLENCE bar is much more enjoyable than breathing into a paper bag.