Don't Let Your Stress Turn Into Panic
Updated: Aug 11
The current state of the world around us is giving us lots to feel stressed about. And here’s the biggest challenge…it’s all real. Everything is in flux and transition - our health, our finances, our school or job routines, our country’s leadership. Many of our patients are telling us that their worries are creating all kinds of distressing symptoms right now from tightness in their chest, to heart palpitations and even feeling like they can’t breathe. That’s what happens when our worries turn to anxiety. So what can you do to keep these very real stressors from causing you to panic?
The answer is…
Calm your body
All this stress is happening physically in your body. Your central nervous system is on high alert right now. Many of the things we need to do to manage our stress and stay healthy require us to use our brain. But unfortunately, the wise part of our brain is essentially offline when we are super stressed out and our nerves are frayed. So before you do anything else you need to calm down your body.
The best place to start is with your breath. I know it sounds simplistic, and it is simple, but it’s also incredibly effective. Your breath is one of the key ways you can change what’s happening in your central nervous system. Slower breathing sends a signal to your brain to slow everything else down – like your heart rate, your blood pressure, and the production of stress hormones. Your breath acts like a control dial that lets you turn down the intensity of your body’s stress system. Here’s how to practice breathing to calm your body:
1. Shift your breath from your chest to your belly. It can help to imagine a balloon in your belly – every time you breathe in, you gently inflate the balloon, and every time you breathe out, you gently deflate the balloon. The key here is to take a normal sized comfortable breath in. There is no need for a big breath because shifting your breath to the belly will naturally deepen your breath. Breathing in through your nostrils can help you avoid taking in a gulp of air.
2. Exhale as slowly as you comfortably can. Allow your exhale to be longer than your inhale. Its often easier to slow down the exhale by doing it through your mouth. You can even try exhaling through pursed lips, as if you’re blowing out a candle. When I teach this breathing exercise to kids I tell them to make snake breaths – breathe out while hissing like a ssssssssnake.
3. After you exhale, don’t rush to take the next in-breath. Let your body inhale when it feels ready. The next inhale should be a normal-sized comfortable one, followed by a long, slow, complete exhale.
4. Breathing this way for three to five minutes will allow your body to calm down and will also lower the intensity of any physical symptoms of stress you might have been feeling like a tight chest or racing heart.
Doing a breathing exercise like this one several times a day can lower your overall reactivity and help get your thinking brain back on line. Once you feel calmer you’ll be better able to think clearly about your stressors, keep a more realistic perspective or come up with logical strategies and solutions for problems you’re facing. And one of the greatest benefits of all is that a calmer body means a stronger immune system!
At first it can be hard to do these kind of relaxation exercises on your own, so we’ve recorded a few audio exercises to guide you. You can check them out here.
If you feel like you can’t manage your anxiety on your own, you might need to reach out to a professional for help. If you’re not sure if you should see someone you can read our guide to figuring out when it’s time to seek therapy here.
At the Center for Wise Mind Living we offer psychotherapy, medication management, coaching and educational workshops. All of our services are available both in person and remotely via video.
Written by: Erin Olivo. PhD