A friend recently mentioned she had a panic attack on an airplane and was looking for something to help. I’ve personally experienced anxiety attacks and I was taught a technique that works well – it was developed by the HeartMath Institute and allows you to get your heart rate under control very, very quickly, which is the first step toward controlling your emotional state. It’s an easy three steps:
- Move your attention to the center of your chest. It really helps to put your hand over your heart. This helps remove you from the swirling thoughts in your head and starts to center you. Keep your focus centered there, and if it drifts, gently and kindly bring it back.
- Breathe rhythmically. This is key to the technique and I recommend practicing this from time to time when you’re relaxed and able to concentrate so that you’ll be able to do this on command. For example, try five seconds of inhalation, followed by about a second of a pause, then a five second exhale. For me this felt pretty slow, so in order to get enough air to be comfortable I found myself breathing more deeply than normal, which is likely also helpful.
- Experience a positive emotion. It helps to prepare ahead of time – have an image ready in your mind that you can jump to that will remind you of a happy time. Even better, try to feel appreciation for something or someone in your life. You might not think it’s possible to change your emotional state just like that, but, surprisingly enough, it is. Steps 1 and 2 ease the way into it by getting your heart rate into a more coherent state.
Practice helps! Practice doing this when you’re not under stress so that when you experience an anxiety or panic attack, you’ll know exactly what to do.
Then consider doing this on a regular basis. Coherence is a helpful book by Dr. Alan Watkins for building emotional regulation and resilience. Watkins teaches the same technique, but he calls it BREATHE (which is an acronym for Breathe Rhythmically, Evenly, and Through The Heart Everyday), and it’s especially important for those of us who sit behind a screen all day to avoid screen apnea.