Your Panic Passenger: Being Honest About What You Need When You’re Panicking
Have you ever had a panic attack? They suck. During my days of being a hospital social worker, I have seen countless people showing up at the hospital thinking they’ve had a heart attack or that they were dying. The feeling of everything closing in on you is stifling.
I’ve lived in NYC for 15 years. I was born in tranquil Vermont and decided to leave to enjoy big city life. I was not prepared for the stress that comes with it. I remember many years ago I was sitting in the subway when I felt this intense feeling come over me. OMG, was I dying? I couldn’t get my breath. I wondered if I forgot how to stop breathing completely. What was wrong? Anyone who has had that experience never forgets it. It was so intense that I was terrified to have another one. I remembered back to a coworker that had a panic attack in front of our boss. Our boss, a very seasoned therapist, talked her out of it. I was amazed at how she did it and hearing the experience of my coworker and what it was like to be led out of that panic. My coworker used my boss like a panic passenger, the person you need to lead you out of your panic attack. I decided that I was going to be my own panic passenger.
I started to learn everything about grounding. For those of you who don’t know, grounding is basically bringing yourself back to the present. My feet are on the floor, my hands are in my lap, I hear the whir of the subway engine, I see the passenger in front of me reading her book, etc. Before I knew it I was out of the panic. My panic passenger was there to lead me to safer ground.
Before I knew it, I wasn’t scared of panic attacks anymore. I felt prepared to have them because I knew my panic passenger was always there with me to lead me out of them. I continued my route to become an instructor to teach others how to cultivate their own panic passengers. It started by talking my clients through panic attacks. I’d create the space for them to have them in session. I’m never a fan of avoiding feelings. If you avoid the feelings, they are going to present themselves stronger next time.
Do you have a panic passenger? If not, you can cultivate one. If you find yourself in a moment of panic, remember that your panic passenger is always at the ready and there to help. I like to start folx with a grounding exercise called 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 because it’s easy to remember. 5 is for the 5 things you see around you: the person sitting next to you, your red pants, the child swinging on the subway pole, etc. 4 is for the things you feel: your back on the seat, your fingers tapping your lap, etc. 3 is for the things you hear: the whirring of the subway motor, the people talking, the kids laughing. 2 is for the things you smell: the stench of the garbage, the smell of the perfume I put on this morning, etc. 1 is one thing you are grateful for. And if your panic isn’t gone, you start over again. You keep going until it goes away.
In my years of being a therapist, I have watched people gradually grow more comfortable going through feelings and hard experiences the more they allow themselves to experience them. It is through these experiences that you learn to trust yourself and your panic passenger to get through them.
In the moment of panic on the subway, the fear of what would happen was much greater than the discomfort of getting myself through the experience. My panic passenger could be trusted, I could be trusted, to make it out alive. It might not be enjoyable but I survived it and that was enough to get me through the next time.
I don’t have panic attacks anymore. Even in the moments of my hardest experiences, I know I can get myself through it. I didn’t always know that. I learned it. I learned it from trusting my panic passenger and trusting myself.
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