Dealing with Anxiety in Moments of Panic

A young girl sitting in solitude with you hands covering her face.

Dealing with Anxiety in Moments of Panic

Dr. James Hommowun

We’ve all experienced moments of anxiety – from the nagging question “did I leave the oven on?” to fears over whether we’ve studied enough to pass a test or concerns about how that contract negotiation is going to go. We know the changes we experience – sweaty palms, shallower breathing, feeling jittery or nervous, thoughts racing, feeling like our minds are “stuck in a rut” and just won’t let go of whatever it is we’re anxious about.

Many of us, through personal experience or good education, have found ways to deal with these symptoms, to recognize anxiety as it is coming on and consciously act to reduce its impact, through techniques like deep breathing, muscular relaxation, creative visualization, or many others.

But what about panic? Most of us have experienced panic as well. It’s like anxiety, but kick it up to eleven. It’s coming home at 9 p.m. and realizing your four-year-old child isn’t in the house. It’s getting the news that a family member has been in a violent car crash. It’s hearing that you have cancer. It’s that feeling like the floor – no, the world itself – has dropped out from under you, you’re in free fall with no idea when or if you’ll ever touch down and feel stable again. Surely this calls for more than just “taking a deep breath,” right?

Yes… and no. It’s important to realize that panic is a natural, normal, and effective phenomenon. It is our bodies and minds working together in a beautiful sympathy to mobilize all our available resources to survive a perceived life or death threat. It’s not much fun to experience, but it has a definite purpose, and it does it well. And when the threat is, say, escaping a rabid wolf, it gives you a much better chance of survival.

In our examples above, if you come home and your child is missing, it’s going to drive you to go out and holler at the top of your lungs and check all around the house for any place they may have wandered – and that’s precisely what you should do, at least at first. But a car accident? A cancer diagnosis?

Panic is not particularly well-suited to inspiring or enabling us to survive an already-passed crisis or a diffuse threat. In the case of the accident, we might speed all the way to the hospital, running every red light – but that doesn’t change what happened, it only increases our risk of not surviving ourselves. With a cancer diagnosis, we may have no idea what to do. So we let the panic come out sideways, living dangerously or irresponsibly, trying to escape or deny the reality.

What steps can you take when panic comes knocking?

1. Force yourself to pause

Yes, it is forcing – you’ll just want to react and won’t have time to stop or think; those things will only get in the way of doing something!. You need to determine if there is an action you can take that can potentially make a difference.
Looking for a missing child? Yes! Go do it. Racing to the hospital? Nope. Your brain won’t particularly care if the action is likely to work – you just need to do. But if you can recognize that an action won’t help – and may make the situation worse – you have taken the first step to manage panic. That first step is recognizing that the panic is only making things worse.

2. Identify actions that may help

You will be fighting your instinct this whole time. This is where taking a deep breath can help – and you can literally just take a deep breath (or three, or five), mentally counting down five to one with each. Some people find it is helpful to give themselves a pressure release valve – “I’m going to give myself 10 seconds just to be panicked, then I’m reining this in.”
Make yourself think of at least three different courses of action you could take and compare them all to each other. Decide which has the best likelihood of making a positive impact and do that one first. You may come back and do all three, and think of even more, but taking the time first to raise three options and then weigh among them re-engages the analytical, logical parts of your brain that panic shuts down. This helps move you out of panic and back into a more balanced state.

3. Act

You’re panicking in the first place because you perceive a serious threat – so you need to take an action to try to change the situation. That action may be active – looking for a missing child – or it may be passive – wait for more information about my diagnosis and study the literature to become better informed about what to expect and how to manage. It may be just to hit your knees and allow that the situation is out of your control and put your trust in a higher power.

As all-consuming as panic is at the moment, it is not sustainable. It will pass. But taking a moment to reassess and act consciously instead of reacting from your gut can help put you in a better place to continue managing and responding to developments after the panic has faded. And addressing it well once makes it that much easier to do again when the situation feels like it’s spiraling out of control all over again – as they often do. It’s normal to panic more than once over the same problem – but it’s also normal to get better and better at responding as each success builds on the last. Don’t give up hope, and don’t dwell on that feeling that “things will never be okay again.” It’s hard to endure panic – but harder still when it leads to despair. Remember to force yourself to pause, identify actions that may help, and act.

As always, thanks for reading; stay safe, stay connected, and feel free to comment down below!


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