I have started flying again after an airline free 15 years or so as I have learned to manage my fear response which was before overwhelming. I wanted to share one of the remarkable techniques for doing this I have learned from Captain Tom Bunn’s book Soar and from a session with Captain Tom himself. The technique is good for all situations where you may panic, not just flying.
The 5,4,3,2,1 technique is an easy-to-learn and easy-to-do exercise which can be used in any situation where you can feel fear getting the better of your body no matter what your mind does. This simple process brings you right into the present moment and interrupts the production of adrenaline and the general unhelpful kicking off of the amygdala. It is the part of the brain called the amygdala which produces all those unpleasant physical symptoms – racing heart, sweating, churning stomach, breathlessness, hot and cold – which accompany extreme anxiety and can lead to a complete panic attack as they overload the body.
If you would like to understand all the physiology I can’t recommend Captain Tom’s book highly enough. Here I’m going to concentrate on how to do the exercise. The 5,4,3,2,1 technique interrupts the production of adrenaline so that there is no build-up. It can be used effectively whenever there is anticipatory anxiety that your mind cannot quell. It works just as well for a trip to the dentist or a big exam as it does for flying. Any event or imagined event which frightens you can cause that build up and that feeling of dread in the stomach. Mostly we try to distract ourselves but when we can’t, a panic attack can result. And if your fear is about an imagined heart attack (for example) all that adrenaline will be very difficult to distinguish from the real thing. Heart attacks and plane crashes do happen but rarely and by and large we will get through the day without either. We just need to teach the amygdala to calm down.
And here’s how. Sit or stand and focus your eyes on an object in front of you. Now name five things you can see out of the corner of your eye. Next name five things you can hear. Then name five things you can feel. Now repeat by naming four things you can see, four things you can hear, four things you can feel. Then repeat with three, with two and with one. By the time you have finished your body has dealt with the adrenaline that was making you panic. If it starts up again, repeat the exercise again immediately. Repeat the exercise as often as you feel the panic start. Each time your body and mind will have a brief holiday from the panic and it will be scaling down rather than building up.
A word about the naming : you can repeat things as needed if you are short of things to name. Make the things you can feel things like feeling your feet on the floor or the wind on your face. Do not include the internal body feelings right now. You may need to do this exercise every two minutes when you begin but gradually you can spread the incidences apart as your body learns there is no emergency. As you get good at it you will be able to do it walking in a busy street or invisibly at the dinner table with your family. It really works.
As I’ve had cause to say before, it is hard to trust that something easy and free that we can do for ourselves can really help us with overwhelmingly horrible feelings like terror. The feelings feel too important for that. But I am here to tell you it can and the secret is, it is the only thing that can.