How not to panic if you’re panicking

The last time I saw my doctor I told her that I was under tremendous stress because of things going on at work, and that I was starting to have panic attacks — that I was waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air, heart racing, in full fight-or-flight mode.

She told me I need to reduce the stress in my life.

I told her that was a little hard to do when the stress that I was reacting to was coming from my workplace and was nothing that I could control. What I was controlling at that moment was my urge to kick over my chair and scream, “Are you fucking kidding me? THAT’S your advice?”

My somewhat dysfunctional relationship with my doctor aside, her advice wasn’t entirely wrong — if you’re stressed, the way to be less stressed is to reduce the stress. Bit of a tautology, but there you go. And if I had been talking about everyday stress, I’d have probably laughed and gotten on with it. But the last time I was this stressed was not, if you’ll believe it, the last time I was laid off — though that was stressful. No, the last time I had actual panic attacks was 10 1/2 years ago, when I’d taken a new job in a new city and had two weeks to find a new apartment and move.

I was leaving a company where I’d worked for 17 years and while a lot of those years were unhappy, it was nonetheless a job I was good at, that I could do with my eyes closed. I was jumping to a completely unknown quantity — a job that hadn’t existed two months earlier, a startup workplace where I would be called upon to use the skills I’d been begging my previous employer for years to let me use. Now I’d have to prove I had the chops. My imposter syndrome was setting off alarm signals at all hours of the day and night. I found a new place to live fairly quickly, but then had to move 11.5 years of my life, including shutting down and setting up utilities, getting quotes from movers, dealing with a dickish landlord about notice, and packing, packing packing, getting around Canada’s biggest city without a car in a heatwave where daytime temperatures were around 45C with the humidex and at night they went down to around 43.

I’d be walking down the street and all of a sudden be unable to breathe. My heart would pound and my knees would shake and I more than once thought I was having a heart attack.

Today I woke up with a list of four things to do — happy things: laundry, call my parents, finalize my list of Christmas cookies to make next weekend, finalize my Christmas shopping list. Easy peasy. What stress? And then I got a bit of news I wasn’t expecting and all of a sudden panic is setting in again because I want to solve the problem but can’t.

The platitude-spouters say when you can’t control your environment, what you can do is control your response to it. I despise platitudes and don’t have much time for most of the people who spout them, but I do accept that this sort of received wisdom works for some people and they pass it along in the most well-meaning of ways. This is one platitude I’ve tried to implement in my own life, examining my response to a variety of stressors and discovering that I can choose, sometimes at least, to not react in a certain way.

So. There. That’s one thing you can do to control your panic. Choose not to panic. That advice is less helpful for when you wake up at 3 a.m. in the throes of a full-blown attack, but when you see the stressor coming, and recognize it for what it is, sometimes you can steel yourself for it and not give into the atavistic urge to go batshit crazy because of it.

What else can you do?

Again, when you’re compos mentis and know what you’re dealing with, deep breathing will help you through an attack as it’s happening. Concentrate on drawing air in through your nose and letting it out, in a controlled way — or as controlled a way as possible if one of your symptoms is not being able to breathe. And if you have a paper bag nearby that will fit over your head, try that.

A quick Google search will give you advice such as:

  • Stop and think -The thing you’re panicking about isn’t actually happening, it’s all in your head.
  • Confront your fear – When your thoughts are spiralling out of control, rein them in and try to work through the problem as rationally as possible (coincidentally, this was supposed to be the topic of today’s blog). This is especially important if you’re a catastrophic thinker, which I am — e.g., someone late isn’t just unavoidably detained, he’s dead in a ditch somewhere. Get out pen and paper if necessary and work it out, or work yourself back to the most reasonable explanation. Remember Occam’s Razor. And if you can’t regain control that way, count. Count whatever works for you. I find counting in a different language helps me focus, so if you have a second language or two, use them. The point is to impose order on your thoughts.
  • Relax your muscles. I know, funny, right? Who is she kidding? But sometimes stress begets stress, and the fact that you feel tense makes you more stressed. So stretch, take a walk. I have a four-minute yoga exercise video pinned to my toolbar, I do that sometimes at work sitting in my desk chair. Just taking a time out can be helpful.
  • Try to laugh. Reader’s Digest had it right, laughter really is the best medicine. Laugh at your fear. Or at yourself. And when I say laugh, what I really mean, I think, is to express your emotion. Laugh, or cry, or punch your sofa (so that you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else) but own the emotion that led up to the attack.

It’s OK to be afraid — there’s some scary stuff out there. But if you let the fear take hold, it can keep you from doing that you need to do. The trick is to neutralize the fear before it gets to that point.

Also (quoting my doctor again): get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat proper, regular meals.