How to Calm Down When You’re Totally Panicked
Expert tips and tricks for dealing with anxiety.
When’s the last time you worked yourself up into a panic about something? Earlier today? Yesterday? Last week?
Anxiety is (unfortunately) a part of everyday life. “If you ever wake up and have a level of anxiety that’s 0, call the medical examiner’s office because that means you’re dead,” says Virginia-based clinical psychologist David L. Kupfer, Ph.D. “All living people experience some degree of anxiety.” And sure, taking a few deep breaths, counting to 10, and closing your eyes can all help some when you are feeling completely overwhelmed. But it often takes more than that to truly quell feelings of anxiety.
“Almost everyone benefits from taking a few deep breaths, but it doesn’t really solve the problem of not having a deeper faith that you’re going to be OK if you’re anxious about a problem in your life,” Kupfer tells Real Simple. Some people experience levels of anxiety or panic that merit seeking help from a mental health professional. But what about when you’re just feeling ultra-stressed or panicked about that upcoming presentation, a tough conversation you need to have, or the 10 things on your to-do list that you just don’t have enough time to do? Read on for five expert strategies to help you calm down.
When you’re in the throes of panic—your heart is racing, beads of sweat are dripping down your forehead, and you feel like you can’t breathe—it can seem like the end of the world. The physical symptoms of anxiety only provoke more anxiety, and the terrible cycle keeps perpetuating itself. “Thinking ‘something is horrible and I need to stop it right now’ only adds pressure to the situation,” says Michael Wheaton, Ph.D., assistant professor at Yeshiva University and adjunct faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.
Instead of attempting to force yourself to calm down (which many times doesn’t work), try simply acknowledging and accepting your feelings, says Kupfer. “If your heart is racing, notice your heart is racing. If you’re worried about a financial problem, then acknowledge that you are worried,” Kupfer says. “Just acknowledge it. Observe it from the outside, in a detached, objective, nonjudgmental manner.” Before long, you’ll realize those panicked feelings have passed.
When you notice your thoughts traveling to scary things, pull yourself out of that chain of thought and instead focus on what’s actually happening in this exact moment in time, Wheaton says. “Pay attention to the present moment. How does the floor feel below your feet? That couch you’re sitting on: How is your weight distributed on it?” Shift your attention away from the future—and all the worst-case scenarios you’ve likely dreamed up—and instead focus on the present.
“No one has ever had a panic attack while focusing on the present, because in the present, things are always tolerable,” Kupfer adds.
Mantras can be applied to so many aspects of everyday life, from boosting self-confidence to serving as a basis for your meditation practice. They can also help when you are feeling completely overwhelmed by stress and worry, says Bethany Teachman, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology and director of clinical training at the University of Virginia.
“Anxiety is uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous. And if you make that a mantra—'Anxiety is uncomfortable, but not dangerous'—it completely redefines your experience,” Teachman says. “Sure, my heart is racing and I’m sweating, but it doesn’t have to mean something really catastrophic.”
Say you’re at a party, and you’re feeling on edge after a less-than-stellar interaction with a fellow guest. During the whole conversation, he kept looking around and acting disinterested, making you feel like a total social pariah. Instead of working yourself up and feeling anxious about the interaction, institute “reappraisal”—in other words, find another explanation for what happened, Teachman suggests. “Could it be instead that the person was distracted, and it’s not that you were boring?” she says. “Think: ‘Is there another explanation for what’s going on here?’ It can go a long way to reduce anxiety.”
If you’re getting yourself worked up worrying over something—say, you have a cockroach problem in your new apartment that you just can’t seem to solve, or you’re about to meet a first date and are nervous it won’t go well— then try this seemingly counterintuitive strategy: “Let ‘er rip, go ahead and worry!” Kupfer says. “Write down your worries, or maybe try recording yourself talking about your worries on your phone. Just really try on purpose to keep that image of the thing you’re worried about in your mind.”
Why this works: A concept called desensitization. “In a finite amount of time, I’ll either get bored imagining it, or I’ll realize [the thing I’m worried about] is not all that likely, or that it’s tolerable,” he says. “The problem becomes solvable. The paradoxical approach might seem gimmicky at first, but it’s actually perfectly logical.”