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What to do *instead of* taking deep breaths to treat an anxiety or panic attack


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Mental-health issues are becoming less stigmatized and easier to talk about by the day, especially with celebs like Mariah Carey and Carson Daly getting real about their personal struggles. Still, articulating the experience of having conditions like depression or anxiety can seem confusing or even impossible, so larger scale conversations about defining, then researching and treating them can likewise suffer. A product of this plagues panic disorders, a condition that the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports effects 2 to 3 percent of the national population each year, despite many of these people not even knowing what they’re battling is treatable.

Both anxiety and panic attacks can feel like having a heart attack, says therapist and social worker Scott Dehorty, executive director of a mental-health treatment facility: They can bring about dizziness, loss of balance, increased heart rate, nausea, chest discomfort or pain, choking sensation, and sweating. If you find yourself experiencing this scary laundry list of no-fun symptoms, you’ve likely been told (maybe even by yourself!) to try to calm down and take deep breaths. But that might not be the best course of action.

Psychologist and Mindsail expert Carder Stout, PhD, says the best breathing technique during these attacks is to “take medium, regulated breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling with your mouth” since both deep and shallow breaths pose their own issues. Deep breaths have been thought to exacerbate the problem by elongating the hyperventilation that commonly occurs during an attack. Alternatively, Dr. Stout says breathing too shallowly “can cause a feeling of suffocation and increase the levels of terror.” In addition to taking medium measured breaths, he says it can be helpful to imagine “that you are breathing in love and blowing out negative energy.”

“Remember, anxiety is energy, and it can flow out of the body and mind just a quickly as it arrives.” —Dr. Carder Stout

But your breath might not be the only function to focus on in order to quell a panic attack; in fact, Dr. Stout contends the best thing you can do is actually irrelevant to breathing. Rather, he suggests addressing your body’s need to calm down by “taking off your shoes and socks and getting your feet in the dirt.” This is not a metaphor, folks—Dr. Stout heavily advocates this practice, AKA grounding

To have a grounding sesh, find a patch of nature (grass, dirt, sand, etc.), and really get your feet in there. What comes next is all about mindfulness: “Imagine that all of the harmful, negative, anxious energy is flowing through your body and into the earth,” Dr. Stout says. Then, “imagine that all of the nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and positive energy is now flowing from the earth back into your body.”

If you can’t bury your feet in literal dirt when panic strikes, Dr. Stout says to excuse yourself from whatever situation you’re in—whether that’s work or a social gathering—and find a quiet place to recover. While there, close your eyes for a moment and conjure a place you’ve been that’s relaxing, safe, and calming to you. Once you’re mentally in this space, he instructs to then visualize yourself grounding. “Remember, anxiety is energy, and it can flow out of the body and mind just a quickly as it arrives.” 

Although anxiety and panic attacks can be terrifying, learning coping mechanisms can help you feel more prepared and in control when they strike. Just consider it a bonus when those tools happen to involve restorative, mindful exercises you can practice at any time.

Since being in nature can also improve body positivity, try one of these nature-inspired paint hues in your home.

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