The Anti-Panic 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise

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There are no good exercises to use DURING a panic attack. In a panic attack, a person is far too overwhelmed to do anything helpful. But if used before panic takes hold, the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise usually keeps panic at bay. 

 

It is a mental game that shifts attention away from anxiety-producing thoughts by focusing, for a minute or two, on non-threatening things around you. 

 

By focusing only on non-threatening things briefly, the stress hormones present "burn off" without being replaced. At the end of the exercise, a person is able to focus on what they choose to, rather than being pushed by stress hormones to focus on anxiety-producing thoughts.

 

Obviously, if a person returns to the anxiety-producing thoughts, stress hormones will again be released. As the hormones build up, feelings of anxiety will return. So, before starting the exercise, plan ahead. Decide in advance what to focus on when finishing the exercise. 

 

The 5-4-3-2-1 is based on a NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) technique that helps people with insomnia fall asleep. I adapted the NLP technique to help fearful fliers deal with in-flight panic, named it the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, and introduced it to my clients in 2005 in a video. Check out www.fearofflying.com

 

 

The 5-4-3-2-1 is detailed in Chapter 17 of my book, Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia.

What You'll Need

  • My book "Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia"
  • See videos at www.fearofflying.com

What You'll Do

  • Focus on an object in front of you. Keep your focus on that object throughout the exercise. If your focus drifts, just bring it back.
  • Say, “I see,” and name something in your peripheral vision. Say, “I see” and name something else in your peripheral vision. Continue until you have made five statements. For example, “I see the lamp, I see the table, I see a spot on the lampshade, I see a book on the table, I see a picture on the table.”
  • Say, “I hear” and name something you hear. Repeat this statement another four times. If you can’t detect five different sounds, repeat some.
  • Say, “I feel” and name an external sensation (not internal, like your heart pounding or tension). Continue until you have made five statements. For example, “I feel the chair under me, I feel my arm against my leg,” and so on.
  • This set of statements makes up one cycle. Paying close attention to sights, sounds, and sensations takes intense concentration, which is exactly what you want. As you concentrate on these non-threatening things, your jolt of stress hormones burns off, and you relax. You don’t have to force yourself to relax; it happens naturally.
  • That completes the first set of statements. Now, repeat the process, but instead of making five statements, make four. If you need to repeat the process again to calm yourself, make three statements, and so on down to one, if necessary. The reason for varying the number is to sustain your concentration. If you simply repeated the exercise without variation, you would soon be able to do it without much thought. Your mind might be able to entertain anxiety-producing thoughts while you worked through the exercise. With a varying number of statements, the exercise remains complex enough to require all your concentration.

Tips & Warnings

  • After you have finished the exercise, if you want to be even more relaxed — or to fall asleep — do the exercise again starting with five statements. If you lose count, that is a good sign, because it means you are relaxed. A person's basic way to deal with stress should be to activate our calming parasympathetic nervous system. We all have this system. But many of us, perhaps as many as 40% of us, lack good "mental software" that activates the system when we need it. This is where my book comes in "Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia" will teach you how to train your parasympathetic nervous system to operate - as it does for most people - automatically and unconsciously.
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