It is often said that “panic strikes without warning”. Having had a lot of personal experience with panic disorder, I understand that while this may feel true, perhaps there is more to the story here.
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What if I told you that when “panic strikes” you actually do have the power to change the outcome? What if I told you that even if panic strikes, you still have the natural ability to circumvent a full fledged panic attack? And what if I told you, you can do this all within 90 seconds? Well, it’s true – true for you, for me, for all of us dealing with panic and anxiety.
There is a fleeting moment of opportunity that stands between you and a barreling thunderstorm of uncomfortable (but impermanent!) emotions. This momentary gap in time is here to help. The 90 Second Gap: The average time it takes for a thought to move through the nervous system and body is a minute and a half.
This means that as soon as a panic inducing thought enters your mind, it takes a mere 90 seconds for that same thought to have an effect on your body. After those 90 seconds have come to pass, an individual must maintain a steady stream of anxious thoughts to keep the emotion rolling. If anxious thoughts continue to flow, the individual will then feel the full the deployment of the fight or flight response.
Maybe this sounds familiar? You have one anxious thought that generates an uncomfortable, panicky sensation within your body. As soon as this thought has passed, 1000 other irrational thoughts begin to flow and pretty soon you are drowning. Panic strikes.
So, if we wonder why we lock into painful emotional states like anxiety, depression, and anger, we need look no further than our own endless stream of inner dialogue that we have allowed to flow. However, if you are able to become present within this 90 second window and place awareness on the impending stream of anxious thoughts impatiently awaiting their exit through the gate of your mind, you have just taken the most critical step to diffusing a panic attack.
To help you maintain this present moment awareness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, offers up the following S-T-O-P technique to make use of the magic window:
S – Stop and Take Stock
Checking in to Head/Heart/Body. Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately asking: What is my experience right now?
1. Head: Thoughts(what are you saying to yourself, what images are coming to mind)
2. Heart: Feelings (enjoying, not enjoying, neutral, upset, excited, sad, mad, etc.)
3. Body: Sensations(actual present-moment sensations, tightness, holding, lightness)
Acknowledge and register your experience, even if it is uncomfortable.
T – “Take” a Breath
Direct your full attention to your breath. Become aware of each in-breath and each outbreath as they follow, one after the other. Your breath can function as an anchor to bring you into the present and help you tune into a state of awareness and stillness.
O – Open and Observe
Expand the field of your awareness around and beyond your breathing. Become subtly aware of your body, posture, facial expression, areas of tension, etc. Further expand your awareness outward to what is happening around you: sights, sounds, and smells.
P – Proceed / New Possibilities
Let your attention now move into the world around you, sensing how things are right now. Rather than react habitually/mechanically, you can be curious/open, responding naturally. You may even be surprised by what happens next after having created this pause.
Continue without expectation.