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5 Ways to Conquer Panic

I can't do it! I'll never make it! I don't know where to begin! These were the words I shouted the other day as I tried to meet a tight deadline on a proposal for our business. I had been working on it for several weeks, but for reasons I haven't quite figured out yet, I was down to the wire.

State of Panic

As the clock ticked toward the 2pm deadline, my body and mind became paralyzed. Through my tears and shouting I felt my heart pounding, I had no saliva, my stomach was in knots and my breathing was fast and furious. It felt like I couldn't breathe fast enough.

My "Persons"

My Person #1: My mom happened to be in town, and while I was in a state of uncontrollable panic, she did her best to calm me down. She said, "Do what you always tell me to do, breeeaaathe." She rubbed my back, kept calm and did what she could do to bring me off the ledge.

My Person #2: My husband did what husband's do and started collating, copying, labeling and whatever tangible thing he could do to help me get it done.

My Person #3: I called my business partner, Tida Chambers, on the phone who was at her own home working on another proposal for us trying to meet the same deadline. As a 15 year veteran Yoga and mindfulness practitioner and teacher, she guided me through calming breaths (longer exhales), and managed to calm me down just long enough to move forward, temporarily. But as I looked at the clock ticking down to the deadline, panic ensued again.

More on the story in a moment...

Anxiety on the Brain

What was happening to me in my state of panic is what happens to us when we are under stress. You see our brain's job is to help us survive. It doesn't know why we're stressed, all it knows is that it has to do something to help us survive.

When we're under stress, our brain goes into stress response and activates our amygdala (emotional center), which puts us in fight, flight or freeze mode. It's the most primitive part of our brain responsible for protecting us from danger, which, back in the day, helped us to run from the tiger (or bear or whatever was chasing us). Dr. Dzung Vo, pediatrician and author of "The Mindful Teen" refers to it as our "lizard brain," because it looks just like the brain of a lizard. This not-so-smart lizard brain overrides our human brain, the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, that is responsible for memory, reasoning, learning and language - human intelligence.

Body's Response to Stress

When our lizard brain is activated in response to stress, it sends signals through nerve impulses to the parts of our body to help us survive (run from the bear!). When your body is in stress response, most of your blood is pumped to your heart, lungs and muscles. Also, the chemical hormone, adrenaline, gets released.

Dr. Vo describes it this way :

  • Heart: Our heart starts pumping faster to provide more blood to the muscles, which makes you stronger and helps you fight back (or run!).

  • Lungs: Our breath gets quicker and more shallow to provide more oxygen to your heart and muscles.

  • Muscles: All of our muscles tense up to help fight, flee or make you more alert.

  • At the same time all of this is happening, our intestines squeeze and empty.

Notice my stress response - heart pounding, no saliva, stomach in knots, fast and shallow breaths. We all experience stress in different ways. What's yours?

What part of your body to you feel stress?


Back to my story...

My stress response went on for at least 2 hours until I was in the car (husband driving of course!) headed down to the drop-off location when I received a call from Tida saying, don't bother. They shut the doors at 2pm. It was 2:07pm.

At this point I broke down sobbing, apologizing to Tida and my husband and mother for all their help and wasted effort. Mom joined me in the tears and my husband's heart broke for me.

All's Well...

There is some positive news in all of this. Although I missed my deadline, Tida made it to the drop-off point, literally, with seconds to spare and got her proposal in just in the nick of time.

I gave myself permission to stop beating myself up, because I know we have other projects with the school district and other opportunities down the road. As they say, "One door closes, another one opens."

What I Learned

When we practice mindfulness, over time we become aware of our mind, body and emotional state, so we can make choices about how to respond. Yes, I entered a state of panic, which I couldn't shake completley until it was over. But when it was over, I reflected on the experience after-the-fact and learned some valuable lessons from it.

Here's what I learned:

  1. Deadlines freak me out, so in the future I need to get things done ahead of time.

  2. Panicking serves no one.

  3. Don't bite off more than I can chew.

  4. My human brain is always there for me.

  5. Failures are lessons. Don't take it personally. Learn and move on.

  6. Use my experience to teach others how to overcome their stress with mindfulness

Whether you're in a state of panic or simply stressed-out, remember that your brain will kick into stress response mode as a matter of survival. It doesn't know why you're stressed, it's designed to protect you from danger. But you have the power to turn off the panic switch and turn on your human brain.

Mindfulness on the Brain

Mindfulness practices help you respond rationally to stress by triggering your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and relaxation. It literally changes your brain. Here's what mindfulness does to the brain:

  • Mindfulness shrinks the amygdala and thickens pre-frontal cortex

  • Strengthens connectivity between areas of the brain that support attention and concentration - it weakens the amygdala’s capacity to hijack thinking parts of brain

  • Mindfulness increases the brain’s production of Serotonin levels (neurotransmitter-improves focus, energy, mood)

You Got This!

Remember that If you ever find yourself panicking or stressing out to a point of paralysis, you got this! Click and download my infographic below, "5 Ways to Conquer Panic," and put it on your fridge, in your wallet, bathroom mirror or office. Your human brain is always there, ready to take that lizard brain down!

Phyllis Smith is Co-Founder and CEO of Live Free Yoga.

Her company specializes in mindfulness programs for adolescents and teens and those who serve them.

If you would like to learn more about Live Free Yoga programs, email Phyllis at or call 214-497-7982.,

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