When my panic attacks first started, I relied on a safe person for everything. I had to have someone go with me everywhere, or else I wouldn’t be able to go without severe panic. At the time, my safe people were my parents and my boyfriend, as they were the only ones who truly understood what I was going through and how to help me if I freaked out.
Several months ago, I took a yoga training during which we talked a lot about the nervous system. For those of us with anxiety or who have been through trauma, our nervous systems basically react to anything and everything. We are constantly on guard and hyped up internally. Our heart quickens. We shake and sweat. We have a hard time breathing.
Then, we talked about people who have a very regulated nervous system. These are the people who just don’t react to things very easily.
And it hit me that this is exactly what a safe person is: someone with a regulated nervous system. We find these people in our lives who are not responding physiologically to all the things we’re so easily reacting to.
My boyfriend is definitely a very regulated nervous system in my life. On a recent trip, my body was reacting to everything- the heights of an elevator we took, the plane ride, the cab driver who was going too fast. Every time I looked over at him, he was calm as could be.
When we’re around someone with a regulated nervous system, our own begins to co-regulate. Just imagine if you were around someone who freaked out when you freaked out- wouldn’t that make your panic so much worse? But when we are near someone who is able to stay calm in the midst of our panic, our body senses that it’s okay to also rest and relax.
There is a way, however, to regulate our OWN nervous systems, which ultimately is the goal.
So how do we do that?
When you begin to feel anxiety, your first tendency might be to turn outward to your safe person and seek reassurance. You might then begin to feel like you need that person in order to calm down. I used to feel this way until I learned my own strength.
After a few months of panic, I started having panic attacks only in the middle of the night. I would wake up, breathless and confused, in a state of pure terror. The first few times, I immediately and frantically woke up my boyfriend and had him reassure me and talk me down. Because it felt like I couldn’t handle it myself.
But then, I started to feel horrible and guilty for waking him up when he needed his sleep. So I focused my attention on myself and rode it through without help.
These nocturnal panic attacks were actually a blessing in disguise because they taught me that I can handle it myself. I don’t need to turn to anyone else. I turned inward and found my own strength to ride it through.
Turn inward and notice what is happening in your body. Heart pounding, chest tightening, dizziness. And then regulate your own nervous system. Slow down your breath. Imagine your heart slowing. Imagine your chest softening.
On that recent plane ride, I was freaking out. When I saw that my boyfriend was basically asleep against the window and unavailable to reassure me, I closed my eyes and repeated to myself over and over, “Regulate your own nervous system.”
I imagined everything inside of me calming down and slowing down. It really helped to show myself that I have the power to be my own safe person and to tend to my own fears.
-Know your strength.
You have everything you need in order to handle your anxiety. A panic attack will always, always end no matter what. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but it will. You have the power to ride it through. You have the power to incorporate self-talk.
When you know that you can handle whatever sensations arise in your body, there is no need to rely on anyone else to help you.
So when you venture out and want to bring a safe person with you, know that you don’t need that crutch, because you are strong enough to be with the anxiety.
Ultimately, it all comes down to trusting our own ability to be with what’s here. It’s hard. So hard. But also so possible.
The next time that you feel panicky, instead of turning towards someone else to help you, can you turn inward and soften? Can you begin to regulate your own nervous system by slowing down your breath and imagining your nerves and muscles and organs relaxing?
As always, you are so much stronger than you know.