How to Center Yourself During a Holiday Anxiety Attack

Your body registers these two emotions in exactly the same way, physiologically: nervousness and excitement.

But try telling yourself that when you’re in the middle of a panic attack.

And studies have shown that the holidays can be peak-panic attack season for people with anxiety disorders (diagnosed or otherwise) — even up to 75% of us, in a recent poll

Thanksgiving is the first big hurdle to jump for most people. If you dread the holiday season (because of family tension, financial concerns, painful memories, social anxiety, or any other reason), it can feel like the first step in a slow march to January 2nd when all of the fuss is over.

There are dozens of ways to combat anxiety, and no two conditions are alike. For some, exercise is a meditative experience. For others, medication helps more than anything. Lots of people even have mantras or personal rituals that help them work through anxiety attacks (which famously can feel like heart attacks if you’re not familiar with them). 

But the holidays are their own beast… and Thanksgiving can be a trigger for lots of people. 

It’s busy. It’s crowded. More may be asked of you than you’re used to contributing. You may encounter family members or friends you’d rather not spend time with. You may have dietary concerns that aren’t considered during the making of the menu. You may find travel stressful. You may find that you’re unable to be honest about your lifestyle or personality with your family. 

Today, we’re going to introduce some methods for centering yourself during a panic attack — especially during Thanksgiving. 

First Line of Defense [subhead]

Walk away. 

Stand up and move to another room. If you can’t find a space to be alone in, go outside, into a bathroom, or an unused bedroom.

Sit down and center your breathing. There are a lot of great meditation tips out there, but try some of these Qigong breathing exercises first. 

Don’t return until you’ve calmed your breathing, your vision is clear, and you feel ready.

The Countdown Game [subhead]

If it’s too difficult for you to leave the room, stop engaging. 

Instead, play the countdown game. Here’s how it goes:

5. Find FIVE things you can see in your immediate field of vision. Turkey? TV? Ladle? Screaming baby?

4. Find FOUR things you can touch. You don’t have to touch them, but think about the way your hair feels. Or your aunt’s Jell-o Mold. Or the grass in the backyard through the window.

3. Find THREE things you can hear. Your uncles fighting? The kettle whistling? Your own heartbeat, even.

2. Find TWO things you can smell. Easy on Thanksgiving, right? Pecan pie in the oven. Your father’s cologne. 

1 Find ONE thing you can taste. Maybe it’s wine, maybe it’s soup, maybe it’s just the inside of your own mouth.

Lose yourself in the game, and come back to reality whenever you want.

Let the R.A.I.N. Fall

It’s an acronym… but you probably already knew that.

R: Recognize when a strong emotion is present. You are having anxiety. It is not weakness, a mental failing, or childish. It is a scientific, physiological stress response that your body is experiencing in reaction to an unfavorable environment. 

A: Allow it to be there. Fighting anxiety produces anxiety — your nervous system is already in fight-or-flight mode. Let your palms sweat, or your eye twitch, or your eyes glaze over. Don’t disagree with your body about what’s happening.

I: Investigate the feeling. Are you hurt by an unfriendly comment? Outraged at political differences? Afraid to be around alcohol because you don’t want to drink? Find out why you’re having the reaction you’re having.

N: Non-identify with the feeling. It may sound complicated, but it’s actually very simple. Tell yourself that the feeling is not YOU. It is not yourself, your attitude, your chemical make-up, your permanent state of being. It is a feeling. Acknowledging that can help take power away from the story the feeling is telling your brain.

There is no perfect way to stop yourself from having a panic attack.

And during the holidays, people tend to be more prone to experiencing them.

If you can remember to walk away when you need to, play the countdown game when that isn’t an option, and let the R.A.I.N. fall (because there’s no other option), you’ll make it through this day just fine.
And if all else fails, remember that you can always find something to be grateful for. Even if it isn’t Thanksgiving dinner.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.