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

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Photo: Georgy Dzyura (Shutterstock)

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

What are we hacking now?

Basically, the theory says that you can talk to yourself as much as you want about how you’re not actually being chased by monsters, but your body, or rather, your brain, it doesn’t matter and will send you flying, fighting, freeze frame or fawn, regardless. whether you took a deep breath or not. Coping with these adrenaline rushes of panic, therefore, requires rewiring your nervous system’s automatic responses.

My therapist sent me this podcast about it and I listened to it twice, trying to absorb as much as possible. I thought she sounded good and would definitely look into it as soon as I got back from vacation. Then something happened and it reactivated my response to the trauma a bit. Then I had a trauma anniversary. Then my previously well managed anxiety attacks hit me again.

Ice boobs to reduce stress?

Soon I was walking around my house buzzing and crying and without eating and without sleeping. To disassociate, I went to TikTok and saw this video of a lady putting frozen meat under her shirtfollowed by more videos of people putting ice cups into sports bras, people saying “vagus nerve” and “polyvagal theory” and “panic attack” and “trauma” over and over again.

When I panic, my mind goes offline. Thoughts, the way I make my living, stop. I needed a way to get back, somehow. So I filled a glass jar with ice, wrapped it in a baby towel, and stuffed it into 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 this is just the placebo effect at work, right? I had to find out. I started asking therapists for their thoughts, doing research the vagus nerveand frost my boobs if needed. As always, the Internet is torn as to whether or not this viral hack is a “professional tip” or just, well, hacky. True, many of the so-called experts on TikTok are not licensed mental health professionals. Many are just humans who try something that works for them and, as they say, if it makes you feel good, do it. At some point, however.

It is worth noting that many of these content creators claim to be experienced mental health professionals, even if they do not have advanced degrees or have not undergone specialized training. They make money from people’s mental health crises. Be wary of these “instructors”, “gurus” or “docs”. Panic attacks often mimic the symptoms of other life-threatening health conditions such as heart attacks, and it is always better to see a real doctor and be told that you have anxiety rather than self-diagnose a heart condition. If you are experiencing severe mental health distress and have suicidal thoughts or harm yourself or others, seek help immediately by calling 911 or a Suicide Prevention Hotline.

There is some truth in the theory

Therapists say there is a scientific and therefore real reason why the chest ice makeup works to calm you down. “Putting on ice, frozen food, or something cold can help stop or prevent panic attacks. In therapeutic terms, it is called ‘grounding“—To engage one or more of the senses as a form of distraction,” says Lindsey Mannon, LCSW’s Disease Therapy in Texas. Stop focusing on your anxiety when you can focus on the cold instead.

Another therapist explains the nervous system’s response to cold: “it restricts blood vessels and activates the vagus nerve,” says Christina P. Kantzavelos, an LCSW psychotherapist in Joshua Tree, California. “When the vagus nerve is activated, it takes you out of the sympathetic response (fight or flight) into a parasympathetic response (rest and digestion) and slows your heart rate.” Basically, it makes you able to deal with your stress instead of continuing to grow further.

Other “ice therapy“Methods like ice baths or cold showers have been around the virus, and there is indeed clinical and anecdotal evidence that can help people with anxiety and panic attacks. However, it won’t work for every person or disturbing panic attack.” If you hit your body too hard while it is already in a vulnerable state, it may take longer to get rid of the panic attack, “he says. Chris Tompkinspsychologist and author. Other grounding exercises it could be more effective.

Substantial treatment is more important than the powers of ice

Keep in mind that “it’s important to know, though [ice] it’s a tool, not a substitute for therapy for addressing the underlying concern of why panic attacks are occurring in the first place, “says Kantazavelos. While it can be pleasant to cool down your chest in a stressful time (and if it does, give it a try), it’s also important to investigate why you’re trying to get into the freezer in the first place.

Instead of seeking comfort only in TikTok, consider talking to a therapist, good friend, or loved one. Feeling so anxious that you need to freshen up is not “normal”, even in these never-ending “unprecedented times”. You deserve a little more complete relief than quickly thawing some meat on the sternum.