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My Therapist's 'Silly' Method to Diffuse a Panic Attack

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My heart was racing. I was hyperventilating. My thoughts were an uncontrollable blur. I knew it, I was having a heart attack. My last few moments on Earth would be spent trembling, crying and snotting all over my shirt. Goodbye life and goodbye dignity.

Fortunately, (odd outlook, I know, but ya gotta stay positive) I am a seasoned veteran of panic attacks. So while my first thought was my untimely demise, I managed to take a deep breath and remind myself this was just a really gnarly panic attack. I knew I’d come out the other side — not the “towards the light” side — but that the panic would pass. I’d be rattled and my day would be spliced with anxious blips popping up unexpectedly — leftover cortisol fallout — but I would be OK.

Lately I’ve been working hard to try and diffuse my panic attacks so they don’t erupt. Instead they just fizzle out, making them more of an inconvenience than an all-consuming wave of dread threatening to swallow me whole and takeover my day. That day as I sat in my office, panicking like a pro, hugging myself tightly, I tried to remember the wise words from my therapist. The mantra, the motto, the chant, the prayer that would deliver me from this anxious whirlwind. The battle cry we came up with in therapy. As I sat there shaking, I suddenly heard her words loud and clear ringing in my shuddering skull:

“Think of your thighs!”

Panic attacks can be hard for people to understand. It’s not as easy as “just calm down,” because when a panic attack hits you are swallowed by fear and it feels like there is no way out. We all experience panic — like when you drop your iPhone and audibly gasp for fear that you cracked your screen and the AppleCare protection plan you paid extra for expired yesterday, or when you are emailing your boss an important assignment and accidentally think you attached the sloth collage you made on company time instead. But we don’t all have a panic disorder.

Panic attacks impact your entire body. You feel the anxiety in your chest, your lungs, in your arms, hands, legs, feet. Your brain rattles and roars and tells you that you’re broken and you’re going to keep breaking. You are immobilized by the panic coursing through your veins. My panic attacks feel like a betrayal. They feel like a violation. Something that inhabits me without my consent. My body becomes unsafe as every part of me convulses under the weight of my anxiety. I’m a puppet and panic attacks pull my strings.

But then I remember to think about my thighs.

I love my thighs. They are thick and strong. They enable me to walk my dogs and hike up steep hills. They give me the power I need to get through my day and the muscle I need to dance like everyone’s watching and they’re obscenely jealous of my majestic jiggling. I love how my thighs look in shorts, in skirts, in dresses, in bathing suits. I love my cute dimples and silver stretch marks. My thighs are incredible, and they do incredible things for me. A few weeks ago during a therapy session when I was talking about body image, I shared with my therapist how while my relationship with my body has always been complicated, I’ve always been a big fan of my big thighs. She made a note.

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A week before my monstrous panic attack touched down and tried to strangle me, I had a session with my therapist and we talked about my panic disorder. As I sat in front of my computer chatting with my therapist we talked about how I can regain control during a panic attack. We decided on a game plan.

“When you feel a panic attack coming you need to find safety. You need to find sanctuary in your own body. A place that will protect you until the panic passes. Somewhere in your body where you can focus your energy and feelings to distract you, a place to hide until it’s all over. What part of your body feels safe?”

She checked her notes.

“How about your thighs?”

“Definitely my thighs.”

“Terrific! Think of your thighs!”

After that conversation with my therapist — which at first sounded like a silly way to manage my panic — I’ve found that when my mind races and my body starts to give up on me, when panic threatens to spread like wildfire, I remind myself that my safe haven is my juicy, powerful, thick thighs. I direct my energy and attention, I focus on a part of me that I love, and it’s easier to stay whole. To not let the panic tear me apart. It’s easier to subdue the panic that’s beating in my chest when I ride it out in my generous thighs. I acknowledge the anxiety but I’m not consumed by the sludge in my stomach. I don’t hyperventilate. I don’t get swept away in my toxic thoughts. Instead, I breathe deep and think of my thighs. I know I’ll always be OK and my thighs will always be sensational.

Originally published: September 28, 2020
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