“Hyperventilating actually balances your body chemistry, if you’re in a physical crisis and maximally exerting yourself,” explains professor and therapist Reid Wilson, author of Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks and the director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Chapel Hill, NC. “But it’s the wrong response in a psychological crisis.”
The most effective way to counteract panic and its compendium of psycho-physio affects is to take what Wilson calls “the calming breath.”
“First, stop moving,” Wilson says. “Force yourself to sit still and consciously control your breathing. Exhale completely, then inhale slowly, filling the lower lungs first, and then the upper lungs. Hold the breath for a count of three. Exhale slowly, while softly saying a cue word or phrase, such as ‘I am calm’ or ‘Serenity’ or ‘I am in control.’”
After 10 to 15 calming breaths, two things will happen. Physiologically, your heart rate will already be dropping. The adrenaline surge in your body will dissipate. And the norepinephrine spike in your brain will start leveling off. Psychologically speaking, you can now think again. (Later, thank your mother for all those times she diffused your childhood tirades by saying, “Take a breath, honey.”)
“Panic is like getting lost in your mind,” says Wilson. “You have to find your mind first, before you can find your way out of the woods.”
In the past half-century, psychologists and psychiatrists have adopted the calming breath, otherwise called conscious breathing, as their first level of treatment for numerous anxiety disorders, from panic attacks to agoraphobia to post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the practice of conscious breathing has been at the heart of Buddhism and meditation for almost three millennia.
Google “meditative breathing” and you’ll discover several dozen breathing methods, all intended to stop the rushing of the brain, dissolve distractions, and make the mind clearer and more lucid. In meditative breathing you focus entirely on the breath—the rise and fall of your belly, the feeling of air passing through your nose, down your throat, and into your lungs. The mind will often wander away from this simple focus, and the task is to gently bring it back. The ultimate goal in meditative breathing is inner peace. The goal of the calming breath is less exalted: to turn down the natural panic response in order to think coherently and restart the logical part of your brain.
I’ve used meditative breathing to stay calm in a number of anxiety-inducing situations. Once, on the face of a mountain in Tibet, my camp was almost avalanched. My partner and I heard the sickening roar of a massive slide while lying in our sleeping bags. We were scrambling around in our underwear when a rock the size of my head meteored through the tent. Neither of us was hurt—the main path of the avalanche just missed our camp—but we also could not move off the face. We spent the rest of the night lying awake, waiting to be killed. To stay positive, I practiced deep breathing—and managed to stay calm despite my impending execution.