Handling your own panic

Both exercise, and talk with a trusted other, are good countermeasures for panic.  Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

I help people with their mental health through counselling, and with their business affairs through financial training and support.  During this pandemic, I have noticed demand for both types of help increase.

In particular, in a rapidly changing environment, the panic response has increased dramatically.  I thought it might be useful to have a look at the human panic response, and offer a few ideas as to where panic comes from, what to expect, and how it can be managed.


Humans are animals.  Like many other animals, we have an innate alarm response.  We have thousands and thousands of sensors built into us, on our skin, in our bodies, in our brains.  Alarms are primitive.  They are meant to be.  They are meant to bypass our usual subtle systems, shut down our normal wide attention spans, and narrow our focus, until we have attended to and eliminated a potential threat.

Consider, for example, the way we react to burning our hands.  We recoil quickly; our heart rate rises; our adrenal response increases.  While this is happening, the rest of the world disappears, and we become narrowly focused.  Panic generally comes from the awareness of an uncontrollable threat.  Because we are thinking beings, the threat can be a conceptual fear: of death for instance, or loss.  As humans, we Do not have to be facing a physical threat to become panicked.


If panic arises, we can expect the following experience:

  1. our normal patterns of logical thought will be suspended
  2. our normal wider vision will be narrowed
  3. our ability to deal with many things at once will be disturbed
  4. our bodies will be flushed with stress hormones
  5. our cardiovascular systems, our breathing, and our digestive systems will be disturbed
  6. our minds will tend towards more paranoid explanations for things
By paranoid, I mean that we are more likely to jump to the conclusion that sensory input represents a threat, when it does not.  A simple example is that way we assume the worst of others in highly stressed arguments.  Our minds, under threat, can jump to terrible assumptions about both friends and enemies.

What we’re aiming for in panic management, is to bring ourselves back under control, and regain some sense of peace.  In many ways, we are looking for the reversal of the above factors.  We are hoping that:

  1. we can return to logical thinking
  2. we can return to a wider, more panoramic view of the world
  3. we can return to handling several things at once
  4. we can lower the level of stress hormones
  5. we can calm our heart, our breathing, and our digestion
  6. we can regain equanimity, humour and generosity with others
There are various ways in.  Doctors may prescribe tranquilisers, and other sedatives and calming medications, which approach the issue through items 4 and 5 above.  In addition, if we want to adopt behaviours which promote the reduction of panic, we can try:
  • meditation (which trains us in even mindedness and equanimity)
  • exercise (which can have the same effect on 4 and 5 as medication)
  • talking with a counsellor or trusted friend (which can greatly assist with 1, 2, 3 and 6)
  • journalling (which can greatly enhance a return to logical or orderly thinking)
  • well-paced activity (work, hobby, etc) (which brings us a low-risk environment, and the chance to rebalance the flow of hormones)
RELO 20180125 Remindful logo transparent bgA SUMMARY

Panic is common at times of great change and loss.

It has its foundations in our usual animal response to threat.

It makes our minds narrow, clumsy and paranoid; and it makes our bodies buzz with over-expectation.

Our toolbox for self-help can include meditation, exercise, talking things out (with a person we trust), writing, and well-paced activity.