I have a distinct memory of when I had a severe panic attack when I was about 23 years old. The details of what spurred that panic attack on aren’t so important here, but rather what happened when I had the panic attack.
I had just gotten off a phone call and what felt like hysteria ensued. My chest felt tight and I was struggling to breathe. I was shaking, and I had stabbing pain in my chest. I happened to be home alone with my dad, who then ran over to his phone and googled ‘How to stop a panic attack’… I kid you not.
He had me take a seat next to him on the bed, held my hand and encouraged me to do the breathing exercise that was playing on YouTube. I should quickly mention that my dad is not one to do things like this. This isn’t to say that he isn’t helpful, but when it comes to moments of panic like these, he’s more likely to encourage the chaos than calm.
I can’t remember the YouTube link or much of the video to be honest. What I can remember was the welcome distraction, the slow and deliberate breathing, my relaxation responses being triggered and finally calming down.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the idea of breathing to feel calm, because of a few different reasons:
- I hadn’t actually learned the simple but powerful ways to breathe to help myself.
- When people would tell me to “just breathe!” it often came in moments of equal agitation and discomfort of my anxiety.
- I really didn’t think it would work at all to soothe me in any way.
What I later learned after my hand-holding breathing session with my dad was that the simple action of breathing was not (ironically enough) something that people knew how to do well, and didn’t know how it could benefit them. By being mindful in the moment we breathe, and taking deep, slow and deliberate breaths in a pattern sends a signal to our nervous system, triggering our relaxation responses. So what does this mean? We actually start to calm down! Practiced every day, and not just in moments of panic, stress or overwhelm keeps us calmer, less stressed and less anxious.
There are different breathing patterns to use… It doesn’t just have to be an average in-out situation.
It all takes practice though. This isn’t necessarily an overnight cure, but when harnessed, is a lifetime tool.
There are apps to use, mp3 tracks and, of course, YouTube videos to help guide you along if you struggle to do it alone. Reach out to a loved one to practice with you as well.