As a young student, I quite enjoyed going to school. Despite my social awkwardness (and maybe because of it), I was able to achieve relative academic success especially in tasks that allowed me to work alone. I had never considered myself slow to process information but I do recall that the subject where my comprehension was the lowest and slowest was the one that coincidentally caused the most personal panic. Math! Ugh!
Math seemed much more like a foreign language to me than French ever did and, for some reason, Math had the added element of time pressure.
I can still recall sitting round-shouldered over my math facts sheet and gripping my pencil too firmly with sweaty fingers while a humourless teacher/ drill sargeant strutted through the room with stopwatch and counting down the time remaining. I’d quite literally freeze. Letting my head fall on my desk, I’d be numb, barely breathing until the litany of stories about why I was stuck began. “I’m stupid”. “I can’t learn Math”. “He is a terrible teacher.” And the downward cycle of fear and failure was in full gear leading nowhere fast.
This past week, I wasn’t working on math but in the process of breaking old patterns, learning new skills and some self-imposed due dates and deadlines, I was suddenly back in 7th grade at my desk writing a Math test. I did not enjoy being thirteen years old the first time so was not about to re-live that age of adolescent angst as a, for the most part, high-functioning adult. But ever-so-subtly, the disquieting panic began building until it developed into the full-fledged discomfort of a houseguest that would not leave!
After a few days in a deep-freeze of panic, I decided to warm my icy nerves with three steps to begin the thawing process and move me from overwhelmed to okay. Perhaps these steps will help others who are prone to panic when their time seems to be running out.
1. Observe Your Body
Observing takes a commitment to being still. Even with deadlines looming and the expectations of others in the balance, noticing where the panic is settling in your body will not be clear in the midst of fussing and fidgeting. While indulging in activities intended to numb or distract, your awareness to your body’s sensations is in slumber-mode. Sit comfortably and do a slow, simple body-scan. Begin at the top of your head and move downwards. Where are you tight? Where is there discomfort? For me it’s a deep buzzing sensation in my solar plexus. It’s a constant heavy hum that makes taking a deep calming breath challenging.
2. Breathe To Your Capacity
This breathing exercise works best when you are lying on your back stretched out. If you feel that you don’t have time for this exercise, check to see how much time has become unproductive or lost to the frozen-feet syndrome. Once on your back, you may feel a temporary increase in heart rate or a feeling of being exposed. This is common. Breathe as naturally as possible to give your body, mind and breath a chance to settle.
- Place your hands on your lower abdomen with middle fingers on either side of your navel. Breathing slowly and evenly through your nose, fill your belly with air, allowing your lower abdomen to rise and separate your middle fingers from each other. Exhale slowly and evenly through your nose, allowing your belly to collapse and your middle fingers to come back closer together. Do this for three full breaths. Return to natural breathing.
- Next, place your hands at the base of your rib cage with the webbing between your thumb and first finger on your side body. Thumbs will point toward your back and fingers will be on the front of your abdomen. Using the same method of nose breathing, inhale slowly and evenly until your ribs expand sideways allowing your side body to rise into the webbing between your thumbs and first fingers. Do this three times deeply then return to natural breathing.
- Third, place pads of your fingers directly below your collarbone and find the tender spots between your collarbone and uppermost part of your rib cage. Using the same method of breathing, inhale slowly and evenly to fill your abdomen all the way up to your finger tips. Work to see if you can cause your fingertips to rise slightly with your breath. Repeat three times deeply then return to a regular breathing pattern.
If you feel comfortable with this process, the next step would be to do draw the breath to all three places in one breath starting with the lower abdomen, to the side body, then to the upper chest. But even simply doing the first step of three deep breaths in each area brings me immediately to a state of calm. And being calm is necessary for the next step to pacifying the panic.
3. Prove-Proof Your Space
I once read a book by Anne Lamott who was giving advice to writers whose tendency to self-edit resulted in low productivity. She suggested putting the “voices” that make up your inner critic in a mason jar and screwing the lid on tightly until the task at hand is completed. Choose any voice that is asking you to prove your worth to them. These voices may be clearly attached to a person, past or present, or may be a collective voice of all those who caused you to question your value. If it helps, keep an actual jar in front of you as a token of your determination to quiet the panic that comes from constantly trying to prove yourself.
This week, after I noticed the jackhammer hum in my solar plexus, the telltale sign for me that panic wants to keep me stuck, I did the three-part breathing exercise then I jarred the voice of my inner critic. Since then, the fuzzy-headed feeling has dissipated, the spiral of negative thinking has ceased and the frozen feet have thawed. And for the moment, I am unstuck.
This has become my standard practice and you may find that one or more of the steps works for you. Or maybe you have your own methods. Do tell!
How do you pacify your panic?