Your heart speeds up, and then it begins to race. Some terror grows in the pit of your stomach, and then it begins to take over your body. Your thoughts become a raging, surging river flooding your entire consciousness. Your heart and mind race out of control. Every system in your body overloads as you feel more and more paralyzed to do anything to stop it.
It is common for autism parents to have panic episodes or panic attacks. We try to align and organize so many different forces in our lives, and we just can’t. We are terrified that we are failing our children. We can’t remotely do everything that needs to be done. Staying on our guard all the time frays our nerves. We often are at the edge of our emotional and physical abilities. And there will come moments when we look down from that edge and panic.
We may experience this in moments where our child is in danger or, God forbid, we don’t know where they have gone, or when our child is engaging in self-injurious behaviors or behaviors that are aggressive toward others. We may experience this going into a contentious IEP meeting. Maybe we feel this most every time we go out in public, when we try to figure out how to pay bills with money we don’t have, or as we worry about the future with its countless unknowns. Panic has so many different forms and can seize hold of us in so many different ways.
My Personal Experience with Panic
I went through some intense experiences in both the emergency room and the hospital in relation to my severe migraines and spinal issues. All the medication in the world didn’t seem to calm the pain or me down. I felt like I was completely out of control of my own body, and in some ways this was true. The pain took over my body, and I was at the mercy of doctors and drugs and the endless waiting for something to work.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months with our younger son in the hospital and clinic for the treatment of his cancer and all the related side effects. We worry constantly about blood test results, new symptoms, and the outcome of every scan. I often feel completely helpless to do anything about it. We are at the mercy of his disease, the chemo, and all these medical forces hoping to cure him, none of which we have much of any control over.
Obviously, we feel like we struggle to be able to help our older son with his challenges related to autism. While we’ve overcome a number of hurdles, as he gets older, others take their place. And the realization that he may not be able to live independently someday is hard. I worry about his future, and we are terrified if something should happen to us. There are just so many unknowns. If we sit in our fear for long and worry, the panic often quickly sets in.
And, honestly, this just scratches the surface for me.
How I Began to Get Some Control Over the Panic with a Very Simple Ritual
So I talked with a friend of mine about all this, and I wanted to share what she suggested I try as it really helped me. She described a ritual she used that has served me well through all the intensely stressful times we’ve had in the past couple of years. It’s simple but powerful.
In full panic, you obviously can’t do any complex thinking. Your thoughts have to be short, simple, and absolutely concrete, to the point of such simplicity that as you read this you may think it’s almost silly. I promise that in a time of panic it will be anything but.
Step 1 – Name What You See Around You
Start by simply naming what you see in the room or place you are in. You can describe each thing if you can, but only simply and concretely. You can do this in your head or say it out loud, whichever is easiest for you. Here’s an example.
“I see a chair. The chair is brown. The chair has four legs. I see a TV. The TV is on the wall. The TV is off. The wall is white. The room has a door. The door is brown. The door is closed. I see a light on the ceiling. The light is on.” And so on.
These simple statements give your overloaded brain something to focus on that is basic, concrete, and completely non-threatening. As you work your way through the room, hopefully you will begin to feel the panic ease some.
Step 2 – Describe Your Body and Where You Are
If the panic has eased some, you can try describing your body with respect to the room or place, or just describe your body itself. Here’s an example.
“I feel my body. My body is in this chair. I feel the chair under me. My elbows are on the chair. My feet are on the floor. My hands are on my head. The air in the room feels hot. I am wearing a red shirt. I am wearing blue jeans. I am breathing.”
Panic can make us feel like we are in an out-of-control spiral. This helps you begin to stabilize yourself by making you more aware of your body. Again, the simple, concrete statements give your mind something easier to focus on.
Step 3 – Become Aware That You Are Supported and Grounded
If these two steps have brought at least some measure of calm to you, this last one can be particularly helpful. Here you are becoming aware of your body being supported and grounded. Even though you’re not literally doing so, panic can make you feel like you are bouncing off the walls. Feeling grounded can make a tremendous difference in restoring some calm. Here’s another example.
“I feel this chair under me. I am sitting in this chair, and it is supporting me. I can feel the chair pushing up against my body, holding me up. The back of the chair supports my upper body. I put my feet on the floor. The floor supports my feet and my legs. The floor supports the chair that supports me. My whole body feels supported. I can relax my body into this chair whenever I want to, and it will hold me up.”
You Can Use This Practice Anywhere
Feel free to adapt each of these steps to wherever you are at that moment. This can work just about anywhere – at home, in a waiting room, in your car before an IEP meeting, in a restaurant or store, etc. As the panic eases, take some slow, deep breaths.
Each of us carries a lot of worries and fears. Some of them can overwhelm us. Something can trigger the panic, or perhaps it just explodes out of nowhere. I wanted to share this with you because it’s helped me through some terribly hard times. I hope you find it just as beneficial.