A couple of years ago, I used to suffer from debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. While living in New York City, simply stepping outside and walking along the crowded streets, was enough to send me into a full blown state of panic. I remember feeling like an elephant sat down on my chest, I wanted to run but my body felt frozen and unable to move, and then suddenly it would become very hard to breathe- this was always the scariest part.
What doesn't work:
So naturally, I went to see a psychiatrist, and he wanted to put me on heavy duty benzodiazepine medications. I took these medications, and he kept having to raise the dose as my tolerance increased and the panic attacks got worse and worse. The higher the dose of medication, the more I lost my sense of self. I would forget what I was saying mid-sentence and couldn't retain any information, I basically had the memory of a goldfish. This was not a sustainable way to manage my anxiety.
When I would go for my therapy appointments, the doctor would tell me I needed to sit very still and focus on taking deep breaths. Whenever I did this I felt the panic actually increase. How could I sit still with this fear coursing through my veins and while my heart felt like it would beat out of my chest? Sitting still and focusing on breathing always made it 10x worse. I began to feel like I must not be doing something right. I was following all of his instructions but was getting worse rather than better. I was losing all hope.
Why our bodies have this panic mechanism:
First, we have to understand what anxiety is and why we have this mechanism to panic in the first place. Doctor Doug Lisle of Esteem Dynamics explains all of this perfectly in this video, but I will try to sum up the basics here. If we look at what anxiety is, essentially it is a warning device to tell you to avoid something. To figure out why we have this mechanism, we must look back in time at our ancestral history.
About 100,000 years ago all human beings were in Africa, so a lot of what our bodies became adapted to are the problems that would have faced our african ancestors during this time. So you're walking through the tall grasses and all of a sudden you see a lion. Immediately, you're going to freeze, as not to catch the attention of the predator. This same behavior happens with panic attacks. The next thing that happens in this situation, is you start to sweat. This is meant to cool you down ahead of time so that you can be prepared to run without becoming overheated which would slow you down. Your breathing also becomes restricted, which is a mechanism designed to raise your blood pressure and allows the cardiovascular system to push blood away from your viscera and into your the muscles of your legs, preparing you to run for your life.
What does work:
Your body is trying to protect you and this fight or flight mode is it's best defense in times when you actually need to get to safety. Every single one of these uncomfortable symptoms are there to save your life. A panic attack isn't really an attack, it's an adaptation. So how can we work with this adaptation, rather than against it?
Sitting down and breathing deeply usually won't help, and cognitive therapy where you're told that it's not a big deal, that there's nothing to worry about, usually doesn't help either. What actually does work, is to let the system do what it wants to do. As a prey species, the only thing that will break the freeze to move through the process as it would have naturally occurred. When you have a panic attack, you can stop it in its tracks by getting up out of your chair and running in place. What you'll find is after roughly 15 minutes of jogging in place you'll be tired and out of breath and you'll feel like sitting down. Your breathing will now be deeper, and your brain will see that and decide you must've outrun the predator. It will then start dialing down the adrenaline, and your state will return to normal.
Alternatively, if you're in a public place or seated and you can't just start jogging in place, you can exhaust your leg muscles by crossing your legs and pushing them together for 30 seconds or so repeatedly or until your muscles feel tired. Once your muscles have been exhausted your brain will stop sending out the panic signal and your body will calm down automatically.
I've found this practice to be more helpful than anything I've ever tried because it allows me to move through the anxiety and work with it, rather than suppress it and fight against it. While I rarely experience panic attacks now that my body has fully adjusted to being off medication for a few years, when I do feel anxious it's a lot less scary now knowing that I have this method to help me through it if I need it.
Now you have the tools to short-circuit the attack. Try it out yourself the next time you experience anxiety or a panic attack and see if it could help you too!