We all deal with negative emotions like fear, panic, and anxiety to different degrees at different points in our lives. There are times when panic is rightfully the result of a crisis situation. In those cases, your fight/flight response is an appropriate instinctive reaction — a warning to help you get through the event, and it will likely dissipate once you’re safe. If there's a lack of safety present, please get the support you need to have the safety you deserve.
More commonly, anxiety is caused by either our preoccupation with past or future worries, or unresolved trauma patterns that have been activated. In these cases, the most effective solution is to slow down and become as present as possible.
This is a practice of consciously settling into your body, noticing your external environment, and focusing your attention on what feels comforting and safe in the present moment. Your goal is to be as aware as possible of the body sensations that indicate or accompany feelings of safety and calm. Paying attention to them will make them increase, thus bringing you out of fight or flight, and into relaxation.
Here are some steps to help you through fear, anxiety or panic:
Ask yourself: Is this a current, real-time crisis? Assessing whether you are actually in danger is an important first step because it takes you out of reactiveness and into self-reflection. Simply stopping to ask the question will interrupt any spiraling and slow you down to the present moment.
When you come to the conclusion that you are not in real danger, notice the actual safety in your environment
As you are orienting to the space, turn your head, looking at the things to your left and right. When we need to run away or fight something off, we’re in tunnel vision. The two go hand-in-hand. Turning your head to notice what’s on either side of you takes you out of tunnel vision and signals to your nervous system that the fight/flight response isn’t needed. In essence, it tells your body there’s no need to panic.
Slowly look around the space. Notice the shapes and colors of the things around you. Really take in the things that are the most pleasing or comforting to you. Take time to notice the body sensations that emerge when you are looking at those things You might even name them out loud. For example, say out loud “yellow velvet chair, pink pillow, white cat.”
Notice the sound quality of the environment. Intentionally listen to the quiet or calm. Take in the gentle sounds in your environment. Can you hear the birds outside? Is it silent? What noises or voices do you hear? Doing this engages auditory orienting the same way visual orienting helps your body register safety and calm. It will naturally bring you into the present, and free you from any triggered fight/flight memories.
Take a moment to feel the texture of what you're sitting in, explore the sensation of the places where your body is touching the surface. Allow your body to settle into the furniture and how you are being held by it. Practice being aware of the sensations this elicits for you.
If you are with a supportive person, look at their facial expression, taking note of their presence, tone of voice, and care. Again, notice the feelings of safety or peace this elicits in you. What sensations do you notice in your body as you become aware that someone caring is with you and you are safe.
If you start to feel tingling in your hands, feet, or other parts of your body, pay attention to it. This is a sign that your body is releasing (letting go of) the extra energy that builds up when we’re in crisis. The nervous system has determined that there is no longer a need for lots of adrenaline to be dumped into the body. That is why the tingling is there. It’s helpful to take the time to feel the tingling until it stops. Afterward, you may feel tired or a bit emotional. That’s normal as you come into relaxation or calm.
This process brings you into the present moment and uses the body’s signals and mechanics to take you out of panic. It is a Somatic Experiencing protocol that is used to regulate the nervous system, build resilience, and bring you out of the fight/ flight state. It is simple and yet extremely powerful. The more you practice it, the more quickly and effectively it will work for you. It will also build your resilience so that you panic less and less moving forward. One of the things I love about this tool is that you can do it anywhere: in your car, at work, when you're with your kids, at home, etc. You can do one, any, or all of the steps above and benefit immediately.
I would love to hear how this goes for you in practice. Please let me know if you have any questions.