Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Our brains and bodies are wired for survival, and panic attacks are our bodies’ way of telling us that they feel like we are in danger. It’s a response that is related to our fight/flight/freeze/fawn system. If you take a moment to think about it, it makes sense. Here, we're going to explain what happens to your brain and body when you panic. Then, we'll give you different ways to help bring yourself back down from panic into rest.
Our brains and bodies in panic
Have you ever experienced a panic attack? Some of the things you experienced may have been these: quick breathing, tension in your limbs, racing heart, butterflies in your stomach, sweating, and even crying. You may even feel anxiety or this sense of doom wash over you. This is because the fear center of our brain, the amygdala, becomes very active, and it leads to ripple effects that then cause our bodies to jump into all of the survival characteristics. There are also two other systems that are at play: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
You can think of the sympathetic nervous system as a little person in our head that’s ringing the alarm bell. It’s what tells our bodies to enter survival mode and prepare for whatever danger might be ahead. It tells our bodies to get ready and acts very, very quick.
The parasympathetic nervous system tells the little person to slow down. You may have heard of it being called the “rest and digest” system because it’s what tells our bodies to slow our breathing, to relax our muscles, and settle into rest. It takes a bit more time to activate this system because, again, we’re built for survival. Our brain is doing what it thinks is best for us. Thousands of years ago, this was adaptive and helpful for when we had to run away from predators or enter a fight.
Soothing your panic
The reality about panic attacks in the modern day is that we have no need to run away from bears or battle for survival. It can be triggered by our surroundings or cues that remind us of what harmed us in the past. However, our brains haven’t fully caught up to how our society runs. The amygdala and the sympathetic nervous system have functioned for thousands and thousands of years, and recent human history’s advancements have been quick. So how can we soothe the parts of our brains that think we’re in danger? The answer is through something we call “grounding.”
Grounding is when we intentionally activate our parasympathetic nervous system so that we can remind all parts of our brains and bodies that we are okay, we are safe, and there is no danger. Here are a few ways that even we, as therapists, guide our clients through in session:
Remember that it will pass. Panic attacks can feel overwhelming in the moment. That impending sense of doom might give us the sense that this is forever or make our vision so narrowed that we forget this wave is temporary. Intentionally labeling what is happening, even something as simple as saying to yourself, “This is a panic attack,” can help you remember its fleeting nature.
Deep breathe. Remember the number 4: inhale for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, hold for four counts, and repeat. This can help slow your lungs down and keep you from hyperventilating too quickly. Here is a list of different apps that specialize in guided breathing.
Activate your five senses. Panic is future-oriented because there’s fear of the future. When we activate our five senses, it brings us back to the present and reminds us that we are safe and there is no imminent threat to us. Look around your space and name (out loud, if you can) 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
Touch something with textures. It can be a beaded pillow, a fluffy pet, the fabric of your sleeve, or a few pebbles in your hands. Focus on the sensation of them along your skin and try to even describe it to yourself as you do so.
Use grounding or stem toys. There are a few cool ones that help create sensations to focus on in an inconspicuous, and sometimes fun, way. You can try a sensory ring or a fidget cube and focus on the sensations they create. They’re relatively easy to access.
Be compassionate to yourself. Know that panic attacks are your body’s way of surviving and it once served a purpose. These are also triggered by things in the environment that we cannot always control, but it’s possible to manage our reactions to them. It can be difficult, and it’s okay that it is. Calming parts of our brains that have thousands of years of experience will take time and practice, and that’s okay.
After your panic attack, feel free to give your body what it needs to feel rested again. It could be washing your face, leaving the room, engaging in some movement to loosen your muscles, or even sleeping. It can feel like you exercised for a long time when your panic attack subsides, so it’s normal for your body to want to cool off.
Another thing that may be helpful is knowing the things that trigger you and why they may be distressing. Making a plan of action is the best way to manage distress because you’ll be better at anticipating when it’s coming or how to deal with it when it arises. This can be done by talking with a therapist, naming the things that are triggering for you, and creating coping/grounding skills for when it happens. At Cultured Space, our therapists have knowledge of how to support you in identifying your triggers and guiding you back to rest when you are feeling activated, whether it be in session or out in your daily life.