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When Panic Attacks: Making Peace With the Uncontrollable

Panic. Even the word can bring a shudder to many. And it seems like it’s nearly impossible to avoid these days, whether we’re watching the news, scrolling through social media, or even going to the supermarket. It’s everywhere! And so uncomfortable! So what can we do about it?

Let’s start with what not to do:


The three most common reactions to panic

Aggression towards it: Trying to push it away, laugh it off, or minimize it (think of someone telling you to “just relax” or “stop making such a big deal out of it”. Kinda harsh, isn’t it? Yet so many of us do this to ourselves!). While this approach can provide temporary relief, it fails to engage with the panic head on, and since it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, continually rejecting it requires immense amounts of energy.

Drowning in it: Letting it completely take over by overfeeding it (think being glued to the news, buying all the toilet paper, worrying about vulnerable loved ones). In such a state of overwhelm, it’s difficult to continue with basic functioning.

Ignoring it: Acting like it’s not there (think numbing: drinking, smoking, netflix). This approach fails to address whatever needs to be addressed in times of crisis, and may leave us more vulnerable than we need to be.


The first step to working effectively with panic is to get to know our go-to reaction. My all time favorite is aggression...


Once we know this, it will be easier to implement the more effective, long term solution below:


Panic is alluring because there’s a grain of truth in it: we’re not in control here. Invisible diseases will spread, disasters and wars will continue to happen, and, whether we like it or not, sooner or later we will all die. And yet, we’re not totally out of control either. There are certain things we do have a say over. In these times, maybe it’s following recommended hygiene protocols, staying home as much as possible, limiting consumption of harmful media, food, or conversation.

The cure for panic is the simultaneous acknowledgment of both of these truths: we are not in control, and yet we are. If we focus too much on one side of the equation (this is where it's helpful to know our go-to reaction), we’re back in reactivity, turning our aggression towards the truth of no control in an attempt to control it, obsessing over that truth and forgetting there are some things we do control, or numbing the whole situation out. To bring things into balance, we must acknowledge the missing piece in our favorite reaction.

Having acknowledged the grain of truth in panic, without neglecting what power we do have, we become able to respond accordingly, proportionately, in a thoughtful way, and to take care of what needs taking care of, and relax when it's time to relax.


Wishing us all health in body and mind in these challenging times.


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© 2020 by Gadi M. Garfinkel MA