Don’t panic! Quick fixes to get you out the stress trap - Food for the Brain

Don’t panic! Quick fixes to get you out the stress trap

Some people experience panic attacks, characterised by extreme feelings of fear. These are not at all uncommon. Symptoms often experienced during a panic attack include palpitations, rapid breathing, dizziness, unsteadiness and a feeling of impending death. Those who suffer with agoraphobia, a fear of being alone or in public places, often know that they can go out or can be alone, but are afraid of having a panic attack.

As ‘psychological’ as this sounds, there is a biochemical imbalance behind many people’s anxiety attacks, apart from, or as well as, any psychological factors. It’s too much lactic acid. When muscles don’t get enough oxygen, they make energy from glucose without it. The trouble is there’s a by-product called lactic acid. As strange as this might seem, giving lactic acid to those prone to anxiety attacks can induce an anxiety attack.

One way to increase lactic acid levels is to hyperventilate. Many people will do this when they’re experiencing anxiety attacks. Hyperventilation changes the acid level of the blood by altering the balance of carbon dioxide. The body responds by producing more lactic acid. The solution is to breathe into a paper bag during a hyperventilation attack and concentrate on breathing deeply for a minute. This helps redress the balance. Moments of blood sugar dips can also both bring on hyperventilation and increase lactic acid. So, keep your blood sugar level even by eating little and often.

A more advanced and highly effective breathing technique is Buteyko breathing (see It is good for general anxiety but especially good for those who often hyperventilate and have panic attacks, which can be exacerbated by the lack of CO2 induced by over-breathing. Buteyko breathing can be taught in a workshop or one-to-one session.

The other main driver of panic attacks is just too much adrenalin. Many people don’t realise that the essential hormone progesterone is anti-adrenalin. When levels fall low, commonly in the peri and post menopausal phases, women often become more anxious and prone to panic attacks. Simply rubbing natural (bio-identical) progesterone cream on the inner arms, where is absorbs well, can literally stop panic attacks in under five minutes. Dr Michael Platt has written a book about this, called Adrenalin Dominance, available from

An instant way to switch off anxiety

If you experience a panic attack or extreme anxiety, dipping your face into a basin of very cold water for 30 seconds (while holding your breath, of course) can instigate what’s called the Dive Reflex, which has a rapidly calming effect. This is because cold water stimulates your vagus nerve, which is a key part of your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS works in partnership with your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is involved in the stress response. So after a stressful event has passed, it’s your PNS that takes over to calm you down and restore your body to business as usual. But triggering the Dive Reflex activates the PNS immediately, so you feel calmer and less stressed in a matter of seconds. Splashing your face with icy water, or pressing your face onto a plastic bag filled with ice, can also have the same effect for some people, and works better if you also lean forward and hold your breath for 30 seconds. The only word of caution is that this procedure should not be attempted by anyone with a slow heart rate or low blood pressure, as it slows your heart rate.

Emily is a case in point: “I recently started getting panic attacks after an unpleasant week of events in which the future life as I knew it became uncertain. On return to normality panic attacks begun. I was never sure what set them off but was in a constant state of shaky nerves, high heart rate, no appetite and feeling hot and sweaty for a month and I couldn’t work out why. I can happily say it’s now been a 3 week panic free period. I learnt about progesterone cream and the dive technique which both dramatically helped stop the panic attacks in the moment from a 12hr panic to nothing. Stopping the onset of them came from a trip away, I had time to breathe and get to know my non panicky self, with the knowledge that I could stop them at any time if they returned.”

Stress reduction techniques

Some people need a little extra help to learn how to switch out of the adrenalin state. There are breathing and meditation techniques for this, as well as psychotherapeutic avenues to explore in dealing with the perceived stresses and causes for anxiety, and many of them can be extremely helpful. We have been particularly impressed by Heart Math techniques and also the effects of ‘vital energy’ exercises such as yoga, and T’ai chi.

There are three things to remember when you’re freaking out, says Laurel Mellin in her excellent book Wired for Joy. ‘Don’t judge (yourself and others). Minimise damage. It will pass.’ That, and taking a few deep breaths into the heart space (step 1 of Heart Math’s Quick Coherence Technique:,breathing%20a%20little%20slower%20and%20deeper%20than%20usual

Or the ‘dive’ technique might just help you get some perspective. Going for a walk in nature is also good.