Decompression Session: Anxiety Triage

Feeling panicked?

It might sound like a conflict in terms, but sometimes finding calm feels like an emergency. You’re not likely to be running from a bear, but you might be running from a looming deadline or a dreaded phone call – and your physiological response can be very similar.

Maybe you’ve put off your usual sanity checks: meditation, exercise, or (perhaps worst of all) sleep. Maybe your attention to study is taking needed attention away from personal relationships, or the other way around. Whatever’s causing you anxiety, it’s no fun. Compartmentalization has its place, and is even sometimes a healthy coping technique, but a temporary one. Let emotional pressure build up over time unaddressed and you might find yourself in an anxiety mudslide.

If you find yourself in acute fear, you’re often not sure what to do. All you know is you’ve let things spiral out of control and you’re paralyzed. It’s hard to figure out how to get your center of gravity back on your own, especially if you’re overcome by fears. If you don’t have time to book a retreat, and taking personal time is off the table, here are a few quick fixes that might help:

Grounding Techniques for Runaway Anxiety

Okay. You’re having acute anxiety or a panic attack. They’re different, but they’re both at best uncomfortable and at worst, incapacitating. Even if you’ve had a panic or anxiety attack in the past, suffering through it isn’t your only solution. If you’ve never had one it can feel even more terrifying. Here are some grounding techniques recommended to quickly bring yourself back to a sense of sanity:


If you feel outside of your body, use your five senses to bring you back. The technique is simple: Start with one sense and use it five different ways: Look at five things wherever you are (a picture, a waste bin, a doorknob, whatever catches your eye). Don’t rush it, take a moment to really register each object. Speak it out loud if that helps. Then move to another sense (the order doesn’t matter). Touch four things. Smell three things. Listen for two things. Taste one thing (this one might be best for last, since you might need to get up for a snack).

Don’t Pace

Pacing is a common instinct when anxiety, fear, or even depression get the best of us. The clinical term is “psychomotor agitation” and this is one occasion to consider ignoring your instincts. Why? Because pacing is your body trying to distract you from whatever internal conflict or sensation is bothering you – it’s not a real solution. Instead, try to identify exactly what’s affecting you and either sit with it or, if you must drum your fingers or bounce your knee, or pace, do so with focus on what’s at stake and remind yourself that this, too, is surmountable.

Play a Game of Trivia

If you’ve ever played Categories with friends, this is the same thing, but the solo version. Pick a category you like and know a little bit about: dog breeds, fruits, colors, sports – dealer’s choice! But keep it simple; something that makes you think but not too hard. Name as many as you can, out loud or in your head. Then, if you need to, pick another. Category, rinse, repeat.

Tell a Friend

Acute anxiety can be a very lonely feeling, and just knowing that someone else is aware of what you’re going through can be a huge help. It might also help you realize that you truly are not alone: up to 11% of Americans will experience a panic attack, and the numbers are much higher for anxiety. What you’re going through is normal. Tell or call a friend.

Anxiety Aftercare

Once your anxiety ebbs (and it will) remind yourself that fear is a biological expression, nothing more or less. Don’t force yourself right back into the cause immediately. Take a walk, meditate, make a call, or eat a snack to put something between you and a traumatic emotional episode. Then deal with whatever’s causing you distress directly, once you’re grounded and ready.

PS: Did you know? Combatting anxiety starts with staying on top of your health. West Coast University offers all of our active students free access to Vida, a health coaching app to help you form and sustain healthy habits that can support you in times of stress.

Need immediate help? If you’re having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, contact the SAMHSA national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.