Recovering from One of Those Panicky Moments

Recovering from One of Those Panicky Moments

One of those panicky moments…in the elevator returning to my hotel room at last week’s Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, reaching for my room key card — that is not there.  My entire purse is missing!  That quick revving up in my brain – did I leave it in the restaurant?  On the couch in the lobby where I had just had the loveliest chat with my fried Ruth?

Quick, quick, as the elevator is going up to the 4th floor…I don’t have my phone with me to call the restaurant because that’s in my purse which is – I don’t know where!  Ruth’s hand on my arm, b-r-e-a-t-h-e. Let’s look at the couch where we were just sitting.  Right.

Quick going back down in the elevator, running for the couch…its’ there!  I let out a whoop of relief and hug Ruth. And the gentleman with us in the elevator watching all of this happening nods with a warm smile as he witnesses the happy outcome. 

Then Ruth and I take a moment to parse out how we had recovered the clear thinking and wise action that had allowed me to recover my purse.

We had just spent the day in a training with my colleague Deb Dana, learning her terrific map of regulating the nervous system. (Below) We had just lived out what we had just learned!

Deb teaches clinicians and clients a simple 3-part map of the nervous system.

Ventral vagus nerve

Connected, safe, social, engaged

Acknowledge distress and explore options

Sympathetic branch

Mobilize, act quickly

When there’s danger, fight-flight, narrowed focus of attention

Dorsal vagus

Rest and digest, stillness

When there is danger, immobilized, disconnected

Shut down, collapse

It’s very practical to know what state your nervous system is in and where you are on the ladder of regulation at any given moment, and to learn tools to shift from one state to another in those moments, particularly to shift from collapse back into action back into safety and wise choices.  And it’s very handy to be near someone who remains calm themselves; their calm nervous system helps you regulate your nervous system back to calm.

(The reliable soothing regulation we all know of a mom holding her child, kissing the skinned knee, reassuring “there, there, you’re okay.”)

In those brief seconds when I realized my purse was missing and that I didn’t know where it was (room key, credit cards, driver’s license, phone, reading glasses, enough distress to instantly shift my state), my friend Ruth managed to stay at the top of the ladder, the top level of regulating her own nervous system.  She used the tools of touch and breath, staying connected and compassionate with me as I dropped into “Don’t just stand there! Do something!” Her “no worries, we’ll find it” kept the functioning of my own nervous system regulated enough to follow her decision to go look for the purse.

Fortunately, neither of us dropped all the way down to collapse and shut down, though if we hadn’t found my purse at all, that certainly could have happened, at least temporarily.  And were we lucky that no one had taken the purse?  Yes, of course.  Immediate gratitude “for the bad things that don’t happen” was part of the re-regulating and coming to calm again.

Deb’s map of shifting up and down our nervous system – calm and engaged, revved up, shut down, and back – make intuitive sense. You can begin to learn about mapping your own nervous system from this excerpt from Deb’s A Beginner’s Guide to polyvagal Theory from Deb’s website www.debdanalcsw.com, re-printed with permission.


What would it feel like to be safe and warm? Arms strong but gentle. Snuggled close, joined by tears and laughter. Free to share, to stay, to leave . . .

In this state, our heart rate is regulated, our breath is full, we take in the faces of friends, and we can tune in to conversations and tune out distracting noises. We see the “big picture” and connect to the world and the people in it. I might describe myself as happy, active, interested and the world as safe, fun, and peaceful. From this ventral vagal place at the top of the autonomic ladder, I am connected to my experiences and can reach out to others. Some of the daily living experiences of this state include being organized, following through with plans, taking care of myself, taking time to play, doing things with others, feeling productive at work, and having a general feeling of regulation and a sense of management.


Fear is whispering to me and I feel the power of its message. Move, take action, escape. No one can be trusted. No place is safe . . .

Fight or flight happens here. In this state, our heart rate speeds up, our breath is short and shallow, we scan our environment looking for danger—we are “on the move.” I might describe myself as anxious or angry and feel the rush of adrenaline that makes it hard for me to be still. I am listening for sounds of danger and don’t hear the sounds of friendly voices. The world may feel dangerous, chaotic, and unfriendly. From this place of sympathetic mobilization—a step down the autonomic ladder and backward on the evolutionary timeline I may believe, “The world is a dangerous place and I need to protect myself from harm.” Some of the daily living problems can be anxiety, panic attacks, anger, inability to focus or follow through, and distress in relationships.


I’m far away in a dark and forbidding place. I make no sound. I am small and silent and barely breathing. Alone where no one will ever find me . . .

When all else fails, when we are trapped and action taking doesn’t work, the “primitive vagus” takes us into shutdown, collapse, and dissociation. Here at the very bottom of the autonomic ladder, I am alone with my despair and escape into not knowing, not feeling, almost a sense of not being. I might describe myself as hopeless, abandoned, foggy, too tired to think or act and the world as empty, dead, and dark. From this earliest place on the evolutionary timeline, where my mind and body have moved into conservation mode, I may believe, “I am lost and no one will ever find me.” Some of the daily living problems can be dissociation, problems with memory, depression, isolation, and no energy to do the tasks of daily living.

Deb describes how we might shift among these states in these two scenarios:

I am driving to work in the morning listening to the radio and enjoying the beginning of the day (top of the ladder) when a siren sounds behind me (quick move down the ladder). I feel my heart race and immediately worry that I’ve done something wrong (staying in my spot down the ladder). I pull over and the police car rushes by me. I pull back out and resume my drive to work and feel my heart begin to return to its normal speed (moving up the ladder). By the time I get to work, I have forgotten about the incident and am ready for my day (back at the top of the ladder).

I am having dinner with friends enjoying the conversation and the fun of being out with people I like (top of the ladder). The conversation turns to vacations, and I start comparing my situation to my friends’ situations. I begin to feel angry that I can’t afford a vacation, that my job doesn’t pay enough, that I have so many unpaid bills I’ll never be able to take a vacation (moving down the ladder). I sit back and watch as my friends continue to talk about trips and travel planning. I disconnect from the conversation and begin to feel invisible as the talk goes on around me (shutting down and moving to the bottom of the ladder). The evening ends with my friends not noticing my silence and copyright Deb Dana 2018 with me feeling like a misfit in the group (stuck at the bottom of the ladder). I go home and crawl into bed (the only place I know now is the bottom of the ladder). The next morning, I wake up and don’t want to get up or go to work (still at the bottom of the ladder). I worry I’ll get fired if I don’t show up and drag myself out of bed (a bit of energy and beginning of movement up the ladder). I am late to work. My boss comments on my lateness, and I have a hard time holding in an angry response (continuing to move up the ladder with more mobilized energy). I decide I’ve had enough of this job and will seriously look for a new one (still moving up the ladder). I begin to consider the skills I can bring to a new job and that with the right job I will be able to pay my bills and maybe even take a vacation. I have lunch with a coworker, and we talk about our jobs and dreams for the future (back at the top of the ladder).

Deb teaches many tools for regulating your nervous system in The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation.

I teach many tools for restoring equilibrium in our nervous system in Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster.

May these tools be useful to you and yours.