by Cathy Vartuli
Your heart is racing, breath is coming fast, palms are sweating. You feel scared, jumpy, and vigilant.
Panic attacks, anxiety attacks… whatever you call them, they are terrifying.
They are especially overwhelming because we are stuck in a fear-based feedback loop. Understanding what’s going on can give you an edge on releasing them. Tapping on the feelings, or using other grounding exercises, can shift your trend from panicked and exhausted to more resilient and calm. And tapping can help you journey from reactive to confident and relaxed.
Our primitive brain is closely linked to our bodies (in fact, it’s rather hard to say where one starts and the other begins). If you put your hand on a hot stove, your reflexes will have your hand moving before your conscious brain has time to react. Which is great! It prevents us from being hurt.
Our primitive brain, doing its best to help us survive, is looking for danger. It “listens” to our body’s rhythms as well as looking for external threats. The ancestors that survived to procreate didn’t always wait until their brain gathered data and processed it. Certain conditions can cause our bodies to respond in ways that help us survive.
For instance, the smell of a bear might get you moving immediately, before that paw could grab you- without waiting for the brain to tell the muscles to move. The primitive brain would sense the change and leap to alert status, sending chemicals to help us run faster and feel stronger.
A fast heart rate and rapid breathing can cause the survival brain to leap to the alarms.
If something triggers us, a bad dream, a frightening thought, a smell, or other “input” that reminds us of danger, our bodies react. If there were a bear or tiger we could run away from it or beat it with a club, and we’d burn off those chemical so that once we knew we were safe, we could relax. (Or we’d be dinner, and we wouldn’t care either way).
When we have a panic attack, we generally don’t know what to run from or to fight. Often, the danger is in the past, and we’re just being reminded of it. We feel terrified, but we may have no idea why- there is no obvious danger, we just feel threatened. Even if we know what triggered the attack, it generally isn’t something we can do anything about. We feel dis-empowered and stuck with the fear.
Okay, back to the feedback loop. Our body has alerted our primitive brain by reacting to the trigger. Our brain then feels threatened, so it sends out chemicals that make our heart race. And because our heart is racing with no place to spend that burst of energy, our brain gets more frightened and causes our heart to beat even faster. This overwhelming fear feels terrible and often only stops when we collapse from exhaustion.
Our primitive brain can become conditioned to a strong fear response. We get in the “habit” of fear. We may even be on edge because we fear another attack, which makes us more susceptible to having one. We fear… Fear.
(Some people have exercise induced anxiety. Two signs of anxiety are elevated heart rate and heavy breathing. Exercise causes the body to… have both! The oversensitive primitive brain associates these natural responses as… DANGER! Even though, of course, it’s just exercise. If you want to exercise, but find yourself avoiding it, tune into your body as your heart rate goes up and notice if you feel more anxious and nervous. If so, tapping to change this pattern can help make exercise much more enjoyable.)
During a panic attack, we may not be completely frozen (disconnected and numb), but our primitive brain has taken over, and it is harder to think clearly. For this reason, it can be really helpful to plan ahead. Leave yourself a note as a reminder of what to do to change this pattern (the grounding exercises are a great place to start). And doing regular tapping when you’re not in the midst of a panic attack can help recondition your mind and body to maintain a calmer and more grounded state all the time.
When you are in the midst of a panic attack, tap a few rounds on whatever you’re noticing. Tap or touch each point while you say, “this pounding heart,” or “my rapid breath.” Often just being with the feelings rather than resisting them can calm the response and bring you back to balance. As you feel calmer, let yourself notice that you are safe… right here right now.
Top of the Head: This racing heart.
Eyebrow: This racing heart.
Side of the Eye: This racing heart.
Under the Eye: This racing heart.
Under the Nose: This racing heart.
Chin: This racing heart.
Collarbone: This racing heart.
Under the Arm: This racing heart.
Repeat as many times as necessary, and when you can, take a deep slow breath (this helps your primitive brain realize your safe- after all, you’re not gasping for breath so the tiger must be gone!).
You may find it helpful to do some tapping before you have a panic attack, or after you’ve calmed down some.
Karate Chop: Hi Primitive Brain. Thanks for being there for me, and sounding the alarm. I know you care about me and want to keep me safe. Thank you for that. I want to stay safe, too.
You’ve been sending alarms and warning, but the danger is in the past. I am actually safe, right here, right now.
I know you’re afraid a lot, but it is okay to relax and see what’s going on in the present. That actually helps us stay safe and have more energy for the things we want to do.
Top of the Head: Thank you for your help, Primitive Brain.
Eyebrow: I know you care.
Side of the Eye: That feels good.
Under the Eye: But you’ve been working so hard,
Under the Nose: and the danger is already over.
Chin: It’s not your fault,
Collarbone: No one told you!
Under the Arm: So I’m telling you now.
Top of the Head: Even though that was frightening,
Eyebrow: It’s over.
Side of the Eye: It’s okay to relax,
Under the Eye: and regroup.
Under the Nose: That trauma was frozen,
Chin: Replaying over and over,
Collarbone: And keeping you scared.
Under the Arm: It’s over.
Top of the Head: It’s okay to relax.
Eyebrow: I know you haven’t had a lot of practice with that.
Side of the Eye: But we can learn together.
Under the Eye: Even though you were afraid,
Under the Nose: It’s okay to change now.
Chin: It feels good to relax,
Collarbone: To know that it’s safe.
Under the Arm: We can work together, to feel better,
Top of the Head: Maybe even surprisingly calm and confident!
Take a deep breath.
If some “yeah-buts” come up during that, write them down and tap on them, too. Before you know it, you may be surprisingly relaxed!
If you tend to have panic attacks during the night doing this exercise before bed may help, too:
We also have an affordable group coaching program if you want more support. We’d love to work with you!