How To Calm a Middle of the Night Panic Attack in Under 5 Minutes

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Life got real weird, real

Just a month ago, even though we already knew about the deadly Caronavirus: Covid-19, we were fine! Weren't we? It was just a bad virus and we would get through it. No need to panic.

Back in the day, (a month ago feels like a lifetime ago!) I wrote a post on Facebook telling people to go about their lives and not to panic, because it's not good for our immune systems, and I got blasted by some that I was doing people a disservice by downplaying the pandemic that was about to hit our shores. Someone actually commented, "This post will not age well."

Unfortunately, it is way worse than I thought it would be. But, I have no regrets for trying to create calm. Especially now, with the entire world shut down, without an end in sight, and so many of our loved ones getting sick, we need more than anything, to create calm. Because the fear of the unknown is its own infectious disease. And it's infecting all of us.

This past Friday night, the 2nd shabbos that shul was cancelled here, I slept fitfully. I woke up several times, once with chills and a rush of fear, worried that I had a fever...only to realize that someone jacked up my AC, and my room was freezing.

Actually, I had been waking up pretty much every night and every morning that entire week with immense fear: What if I was going to die? After all, I'm 51! A month ago I had been jokingly comparing myself to JLo, and now my brain was screaming, "What!? Are you dumb? You're not as young as you think you are!!" (Isn't it lovely how kind our self dialogue can be?)

One night I remember feeling like I couldn't breathe while trying to fall asleep. Of course the fight or flight part of my brain switched on, screaming: "OMG this is it, it's Corona!" Fortunately, the sane part of my brain sent a quick memo saying, "Hey! Yoohoo! Hello!...CALM THE F DOWN! You don't have fever, you feel fine, you're not coughing. This is just your friendly, everyday panic attack...RELAX!"

And, knowledge is power. A panic attack loses a lot of its force when you are aware of what you're dealing with, and you know you can defeat it.  Which is why I decided to write this post and share my own personal tools and steps for getting through it. We have no idea how to defeat COVID-19, but we can definitely win the war against the evil PA! (panic attack)

So what exactly is a panic attack? (Or any anxiety or fear for that matter.) It's when our minds get stuck in a traumatic past or a terrible imagination of the future, and for all intents and purposes, it reacts as if whatever happened in the past or the terrible ways we imagine the future, are actually happening right now.

Once the fight or flight reaction begins, the body secretes a ton of adrenaline and cortisol. Now, this is great if we're ACTUALLY under real attack.  But if it's...say...3 am, and we're safe in our beds, and all of these chemicals are being secreted because we remember what we watched on CNN, or we are making up stories of a terrible future...well, then, it's pretty much the worst feeling in the world.

The good news is, there are things you can do to calm down your parasympathetic nervous system in under 5 minutes. YES. This is a fact.

By now, most people know that taking deep breaths is the best way to calm down your brain and body. The problem with this, is that in a panicked state of mind, even while you're trying to take those breaths, it not only doesn't always feel like it's helping, but to some it may even cause them to feel worse, or hopeless, if the relief is not instant.  Unless we have practiced this with at least some positive result, our brains give us a hard time, especially in a state of fight or flight, believing that nothing will help us at all. That is why panic attacks are so scary.

But you CAN get ahead of them!

Before we get to my how-to's, it's very important to integrate the following idea in a time of relative calm...say, like right now, while you're relaxing and reading this post:

It is scientifically proven that deep breathing...or simply slowing down and focussing on your breath, is the shortcut that will calm down your parasympathetic nervous system, reaching the part of your brain that's in fight or flight, way faster, and less energy-depleting than trying to rationalize away your fears. 

This pre-existing knowledge is what Gedale Fenster, would call "da'as," or "da'at", which loosely means "a learned knowledge of helpful information," that helps us deal with our challenges in a positive way.

OK. So now that we all have integrated that important information, I'm going to go through the steps I personally take to get myself out of panic mode.  These are the things that have helped me. But, everyone is different, so whatever feels right or good for you to try is great, and whatever doesn't, that's OK too. But, I figured if these powerful tools help me so much, why not share them? Right?

Also, I'd like to note that some of the tools I use I learned from the book: The 60 Second Fix by Regalena Melrose, Ph.D. If you guys have never heard of Somatic Experiencing, and suffer from anxiety, PTSD, or any trauma at all, this is an easy book you may want to read.

That being said, this is how I calm a middle of the night panic attack in under 5 minutes:

Step 1: Awareness

Let's say, I wake up, and as soon as my brain becomes aware, I feel it. That horrible flood of adrenaline and cortisol coursing through my body. The "monkey chatter" in my brain begins as if someone undid the floodgates of fearful and upsetting thoughts, and within a few seconds I know I'm at risk of getting washed away with them. At that very moment I simply become AWARE of what is going on and I define it without attaching anything dramatic to it: "This is just anxiety. My body is secreting chemicals that are causing me to feel this way."

Step 2: Deep Inhale

Once I have awareness, I have enough brain space to remind myself to begin taking deep breaths. I do not think, "Will this work?", and I do not worry about the technicalities or the how-tos. I just start inhaling deeply, because I already know this WILL begin to shutter the floodgates of fear.

Step 3: Focus Your Breath

Now I can put my focus on my breath. Inhale for 5, feel the breath go all the way down to the belly, hold for 3-5 seconds, exhale the breath all the way out for 8. Or, find your own pattern that feels calming to you.

Step 4: Somatic Anchoring

I can now control and direct my thoughts a bit more easily. At this point, I will anchor my feet down into my mattress, and/or focus on feeling the support and comfort of my mattress and pillow connecting to my body and head. This is part of Somatic Healing, and it works because it "anchors" you into the current moment with your focus on your current physical comforts.

Step 5: Affirmations

Once your focus is on a current comfort or support, you can start to say silently or out loud, "I am safe in this moment." or "I am healthy in this moment." or "I am grateful for the comfort of my bed." Or whatever other mantra you feel like saying that will continue to anchor you into the present, safe moment.

Step 6: Stay Present with Gratitude

You should be starting to feel a little better now. Continue with the breathing, the mantras and affirmations, and see if you can move your thoughts into gratitude for whatever is good in the current moment. The key is to stay anchored in the present as much as possible. If you get pulled back into "monkey brain" just refocus and start over. It's a practice like anything else, and it does get easier and more instinctive over time..

Step 7: Shift to Recovery

For me, sometimes I'll shift into meditation mode, get tired, and fall asleep. That's the best case scenario. But many times that doesn't work. Sometimes I need to get up and just accept that I'm not going to fall back asleep right away, but at least I'm calm enough to go do something distracting, or I'll talk to G-d and pray. But either way, I'm no longer panicking.

I hope these steps have helped you. If they seem difficult at first, or as if they are not working, just keep trying. It's like learning a new language, and before you know it, you will see that you CAN calm yourself down.

This entire experience is a huge reminder that we really have no control over anything, except how we respond to the craziness going on around us. And as Gedale Fenster says, "There is a great power in powerlessness." Our greatest fears and pain come from the illusion that we have any control at all, or that things "should" be a certain way. Once we give over all of our control to the one and only "Controller," and accept that what is happening, is for a reason that we cannot see, then we can just let it all go.

So keep the faith, keep on breathing, and remember, we're all in this together. Please share your ideas on how you're staying calm during this harrowing time via email, or on my Instagram page.

Sending calming thoughts,



Blogger/Certified Life Coach

For a confidential appointment via phone or FaceTime, email me.

Next up...What Are We Supposed To Be Doing Now??

  • Share:

You Might Also Like