There’s nothing worse than having a panic attack in public, like during a meeting at work or when you’re waiting in line at a market or gas station. Your panic may inflame your body like a raging inferno. Physically, you may feel dizzy or reel with fear and bewilderment. Some people have described a sensation of vertigo or disorientation in their body at these times. The impulse to run out and get as far away from people as possible during a panic attack is undeniably real. You may experience a strong urge to postpone a transaction and rush frantically back to your car or your work station or even a vacant bathroom stall. That’s okay. Just remember, you have other choices, and there are tools that can help you cope with the impulse to escape.

The following version of the S.T.O.P. practice will help you reclaim your sense of balance and strength to follow through with the task at hand, whether you’re surrounded by strangers or people you know. Again, S.T.O.P. stands for Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed. Try it now.

1. Stop: Begin by taking a pause and giving yourself permission to stop what you’re doing. This is your special time to listen in and nurture yourself.

2. Take a breath: Pay attention to your breath. You may notice that you’re holding your breath or that your breathing is constrained. If so, just let yourself breathe, without forcing it or changing your breath. Gradually, your breath will return and you’ll connect with it more readily. When your breathing begins to feel more natural, normal, and steady, bring your breath into your belly. You may become aware of how your belly expands and contracts, pushing out against your waistline on the inhale and then deflating on the exhale. Take a few belly breaths.

3. Observe: Acknowledge and allow any and all sensations that are coming up right now in your body. Are you feeling the urge to race out or to stay put? Are you dizzy or light-headed? Are you feeling more connected with your body or less connected? Acknowledge the feelings that your body is sharing with you. By allowing these sensations to surface and run their natural course, you’ll start to settle down and recognize that you have more control than you often think. When you recognize the sensations percolating in your body, you create space for change and a way to work through these sensations, breath by breath, moment to moment.

By allowing these sensations to surface and run their natural course, you’ll start to settle down and recognize that you have more control than you often think.

4. Proceed: Remember to breathe and return to being fully present in the now. Move gently forward in your day. Be compassionate toward yourself when panicky feelings arise. They’ll come and go, rise and fall, similar to your breath, and to the clouds overhead, and to the ebb and flow of the ocean.

S.T.O.P. is your free “time-out” ticket—time for just you, time to observe what’s going on inside, and time to breathe. Your mindful awareness of your breath and your body is exactly where you’ll discover your balance and equilibrium so that you can face the rest of your day with calm and ease.

This article was adapted from Calming the Rush of Panic, by Bob Stahl PhD, Wendy Millstine NC.

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Bob Stahl

Bob Stahl, PhD, has founded seven Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs in medical centers in the San Francisco Bay Area and is currently offering programs at Dominican Hospital and El Camino Hospitals in Los Gatos and Mt. View. Dr. Stahl serves as a Senior Teacher for Oasis Institute for Mindfulness-Based Professional Education and Training at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Bob is coauthor of 5 books: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Living With Your Heart Wide Open, Calming the Rush of Panic, A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook for Anxiety, and MBSR Everyday. Bob is the guiding teacher at Insight Santa Cruz and a visiting teacher at Spirit Rock.


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