Why? The autonomic nervous system, sometimes called the “fight or flight” system, is a beautiful mechanism: It’s responsible for controlling a host of bodily functions like perspiration, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and sexual response, the Mayo Clinic says. It lets us know when we're dealing with a threat. But sometimes, the fight or flight system kicks in when we don’t need it. According to 2017 research published in Chronic Stress, during intense anxiety or panic attacks, the logical part of your brain (called the prefrontal cortex) becomes less active while the emotional brain (the limbic system) becomes overactive. The brainstem joins the fray and produces fight, flight, freeze symptoms, like dizziness, shaking, nausea, and palpitations. When this happens, telling yourself to relax doesn't always cut it.
“There are a number of strategies you can use to activate your brain to create calm,” says mental health expert Kathy Wilmering, MSW, ARNP. Enter: my panic attack pack. It’s a small portable bag that has nine drug-store tools I use to manage panic and anxiousness. It's an instrumental part of my overall anxiety management, and it helps my brain and my body become a little more aligned. Below, you’ll find some of what I keep in my panic attack pack—maybe it will inspire you to make your own.
1. A small bag to hold everything
You’re going to want to get a small bag that you can easily transport with you. I purchased a pink sequin-covered fanny pack because sequins make me happy, and it keeps my hands-free. You might use a makeup bag, a pencil case, or anything that you don’t mind carrying around—the choice is yours.
2. Disposable cold packs
I swear by disposable packs because applying something cold to your face can divert your attention from panic and catapult you into the present moment. I apply a disposable cold pack around the eyes for 30 seconds, then take a 30-second break, and repeat until the anxiousness is under control. You can also try putting one on your neck or wrists for the same effect. And, if you find that you’re out without a panic pack—splashing your face with cold water or grabbing an ice cube can have the same effect.
3. A reusable straw
I keep a plastic reusable straw cut in half so that it is no more than 3 inches in length. Why? There are two critical benefits of breathing through a straw: The first is that it can reduce the risk of hyperventilation, or quick breathing, which is associated with exhaling excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, worsening anxiety, and lightheadedness. The second benefit is that slowing down your exhale will shift your nervous system out of a state of stress and into one of greater calm—a parasympathetic state, often called the “rest and digest” system.
4. Essential oil
Aromatherapy is a longheld relaxation tool, and therapeutic grade essential oils can be helpful. As Well+Good previously reported, essential oils are aromatic liquids that are derived from plants. Some of my favorites include lavender, chamomile, and citrus oils. Many essential oils can be used topically, but you should check the directions before applying them directly to your skin.
5. Reusable earplugs or headphones
Sometimes when anxiousness is high, your nervous system feels overstimulated, and using noise-canceling headphones or earplugs can reduce external stimuli so that you can focus on your breathing. Additionally, you might play some music that calms you down. Research shows that music can assist in shifting your nervous system out of autonomic arousal and into a parasympathetic state. Pick your favorite music and save it on your phone.
6. A rough stone and a smooth stone
Grounding techniques like touch are some of the best ways to reduce anxiety. This is often why people use the common 5-4-3-2-1 technique (you spot five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste). Different textures and sensations will ground you in the present moment, and pull you back into your body, reducing stress and turning your logical brain back on.
7. Ginger chews
According to older research published in Chemical Senses, the three most potent flavors targeting the autonomic nervous system are salty, sour, and bitter. I love personally ginger because of its incredibly calming and soothing effect on the nervous system. It can also alleviate nausea from stress and anxiety.
8. Bubble Wand
This might sound silly, but blowing bubbles with a bubble wand can stop anxiousness. First, blowing bubbles requires me to breathe slowly, which helps foster relaxation. Second, blowing bubbles can block the transmission of stress impulses to the brain. Finally, it might make you giggle a little bit—and laughter is a major stress-reliever.
For years, I took my panic attack pack with me everywhere. Even if I didn’t need to use it, simply having options gave me a sense of control and calm. You can experiment with items that might work for you but, above all else, if you're dealing with panic attacks and extreme anxiety, make sure to check in with a medical professional about how you're feeling.
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