What is the polyvagal theory (and can it actually stop a panic attack)?

What is the polyvagal theory (and can it actually stop a panic attack)?

Image of the article titled How to stop a panic attack with frozen meat

Photo: Georgy Dzyoura (Shutterstock)

I’m all about “it’s not TMI, it’s transparency”, which is why TikTok is the best social network – a place where people have no problem confessing naked in 15 seconds or less. It is also a wonderful plato explore the more…unconventional side of wellness and mental health trends. My phone and/or my TikTok account may or may not have been listening to a recent therapy session where my therapist and I were talking about my pandemic panic disorder and the new coping strategy that’s been trending on the streets these days. these days: polyvagal theoryalso known as nervous system hacking.

What are we hacking now?

Basically, the theory is that you can tell yourself anything you want about the fact that you’re not actually being chased by monsters, but your body – or rather your brain – doesn’t care and will send you on the run, fight, gel or fawn, whether you took a deep breath or not. Dealing with these adrenaline rushes of panic therefore requires rewiring the automatic responses of your nervous system.

My therapist sent me this podcast about it and I listened to it twice, trying to absorb as much as possible. I thought it was cool and was definitely going to check it out when I got back from vacation. Then something happened and it kinda reactivated my traumatic reaction. Then I had a trauma birthday. Then my anxiety attacks, previously well controlled, took hold of me again.

Ice your boobs to reduce stress?

Soon I was walking around my house buzzing and crying, without eating or sleeping. To unlink, I went to TikTok and saw this video of a lady sticking frozen beef on her shirtfollowed by more videos of people sticking cups of ice cream in their sports bras, people repeating “vagus nerve”, “polyvagal theory”, “panic attack” and “trauma” over and over again.

When I panic, my mind goes offline. The thoughts – the way I make a living – stop. I needed a way to come back, one way or another. So I filled a jar with ice cream, wrapped it in a baby washcloth, and stuck it in my bra. My son said, “You’re acting weird. He wasn’t wrong. But immediately I felt good again.

Is it the placebo effect or the real deal?

Surely that’s just the placebo effect at work, right? I had to know. I started asking therapists what they thought, researching the vagus nerve, and ice my breasts if necessary. As always, the internet is torn as to whether or not this viral hack is “pro tip” or just, well, hacky. Granted, many of TikTok’s so-called experts are not licensed mental health professionals. Many are just humans trying something that works for them and, as they say, if it feels good, do it. Up to a point, anyway.

It’s worth noting that many of these content creators claim to be professional mental health experts, even though they don’t have graduate degrees or specialized training. They make money off of people’s mental health crises. Beware of these “coaches”, “gurus” or “docs”. Panic attacks often mimic symptoms of other life-threatening health conditions like heart attacks, and it’s always better to get checked out by a real doctor and be told you have anxiety than to be misdiagnosed with heart disease. If you are experiencing serious mental health issues and are having suicidal thoughts or harming yourself or others, seek help immediately by calling 911 or a Suicide Prevention Hotline.

There is truth in the theory

Therapists say there’s a scientific and therefore real reason why the ice on the chest trick works to calm you down. “Put ice, frozen food or something cold can help stop or prevent panic attacks. In therapeutic terms, it’s called ‘grounding‘- engaging one or more of your senses as a form of distraction,” says Lindsey Mannon, an LCSW from Malaty Therapy in Texas. You stop focusing on your anxiety when you can focus on the cold instead.

Another therapist explains the nervous system’s response to cold: “It constricts the blood vessels and activates the vagus nerve,” explains Christina P. Kantzavelos, an LCSW psychotherapist in Joshua Tree, California. “When the vagus nerve is activated, it shifts you from a sympathetic (fight or flight) response to a parasympathetic (rest and digest) response and slows your heart rate.” Basically, it allows you to deal with your stress instead of just going around in circles.

Other “ice therapy“Methods like ice baths or cold showers have made the rounds of the virus, and there is actually clinical and anecdotal evidence that they can help people with anxiety and panic attacks. won’t work for all people or for all panic attacks.”If you shock your body too much when it’s already in a vulnerable state, it may take longer to get rid of the panic attack,” says Chris Tompkinspsychologist and author. Other Grounding Exercises could be more efficient.

Bottom processing is more important than ice powers

Keep in mind that “it is important to know that even if [ice] is a tool, it does not replace therapy to address the underlying concern of why panic attacks occur in the first place,” says Kantazavelos. While it can be nice to freeze your chest in a stressful moment (and if it is, go for it), it’s also important to research why you’re putting yourself in your freezer in the first place.

Instead of seeking comfort only in TikTok, consider talking to a therapist, a good friend, or a loved one. Feeling so anxious that you need to calm down is not “normal”, even in these endless “unprecedented times”. You deserve a little more complete relief than quickly defrosting meat on your breastbone.

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