When You Feel Terrified: Come Out of the Panic Zone


“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” ~Pema Chodron

Are you as scared as I am?

I’m terrified.

I’m not talking horror movie terrified either. This isn’t the kind of scared where you jump, but then realize it’s just your friend who’s surprised you. This isn’t even the kind of scared when you realize you left your iPhone in a public bathroom.

This is the kind of scared where your gut churns and churns. You feel shaky, hungry, and out of sorts. It’s a visceral, palpable fear.

Who’s Afraid Of the Big Bad… ?

You’re probably wondering what it is that I’m so afraid of. Perhaps my house is haunted? It isn’t. Perhaps I have a stalker? No. Zombie apocalypse? Seriously, I wouldn’t be blogging at a time like that.

I’m scared because I’ve decided to work full time on my own business. It’s a big step to start your own company and even bigger when you decide to do it without a  “back-up job” net.  If you have any doubts, let me assure you it’s mind numbingly scary.

What if I can’t get clients? What if no one wants to read my blog or my books? What if I fail miserably, pathetically? What if my family and girlfriend abandon me because I have shamed them beyond repair?

Change is Scary

A bit too dramatic? Yes, very much so, but whenever we start to transform our lives it’s scary. Risk and vulnerability are essential qualities of transformation.

Deep and fundamental change requires us to step outside of our comfort zone. The trick is not to step too far out. We need challenge, but we don’t need panic.

Get In The Zones

There are 3 zones that can describe most of our experiences.

1. The Cool Zone. This is where we know the landscape, can predict many outcomes, and function with some sense of ease.

2. The Change Zone. This is where our edges are being pushed, we might feel slightly uncomfortable, and there’s a bit of pressure, but we can handle it.

3. The PANIC ZONE! This zone is all like AHHHHHH!! We are freaked out and we tend to react, shut down, or run away.

Surfing the Waves

The trick to sustainable transformation is to travel from your Cool Zone out to your Change Zone and back.

We step into a challenging circumstance, but then we take a break. We push ourselves to exercise more, but then we give ourselves time to rest. This is the ebb and flow of sustainable transformation.

Gonna’ Take It Right Into the Panic Zone

Unfortunately sometimes our desire for results wins out. We lose sight of this flow and push a little too hard. The next thing we know we’re in the Panic Zone.

This happens when the project of running my own business overwhelms me. My mind gets hazy, my heart races, my palms sweat, and I feel like I’m falling. Perhaps the worst part is I stop being able to take in new information.

When in the Panic Zone we undergo physical, mental, and emotional stress. Because of this we can’t learn very much in the Panic Zone. In addition, spending too much time in our Panic Zone can result in back sliding into old habits, burnout, and illness or injury.

3 Things to Remember

One of the hardest things about a Panic Zone is that your mind runs wild. Your head fills with thoughts that swirl out of control. You have to find a way to ground your thoughts and return to your comfort zone.

To start there are 3 things to remember when you’re in the Panic Zone:

1. Realize and accept that you’re in your Panic Zone. Denying only makes it worse.

2. Remember that everyone goes there from time to time. It’s easy to think you are alone, weak, and somehow inadequate, but you’re not. Being there doesn’t make you anything but human. It’s about what you do when you get there. Which bring us to…

3. Use a grounding technique to center yourself. There are many techniques, but here is my favorite one for getting out of my Panic Zone.

A Panic Zone Exercise

Close your eyes. Take a couple of deep breaths.

Turn your attention to your feet. Describe how your feet feel. You can do this silently, out loud, or by writing it down. The more details you can describe the better. What temperature are your feet? Do the tops of your feet feel the same as the bottoms?

Can you tell what kind of shoes you have on? How? Can you feel where you shoes end? Where your socks end? If you find a solid sensation use it as an anchor. Focus on that one sensation. If it stops working, then move onto another sensation.

This exercise helps us pull energy from our heads into our bodies to slow the spinning mind. It is very effective alone, but even better if you have someone to walk you through it.

Take A Break 

Once you are out of your Panic Zone, make sure to rest. Your resources have been depleted and you will need time to recharge your body and heart. It’s very important you be gentle with yourself after a visit to the Panic Zone.

Your brain undergoes chemical and hormonal changes when placed under stress. After a trip to the Panic Zone those changes can endure for several minutes to an hour or more.  Make sure to give yourself some extra time before returning to a stressful situation.

Don’t Stop 

The Panic Zone shouldn’t stop your deep personal work. Entering your Panic Zone is a good indication that you are starting to make significant change. Once you’ve developed some tools and an awareness of your triggers, you’ll be able to work with it.

I was scared to start my own company and I am still scared to start doing it full-time, but I have been to the Panic Zone and lived to tell the tale. Surviving the Panic Zone gives me confidence that I can meet whatever comes next.

What are your favorite tools to deal with difficult emotions?

Photo by M. Dolly

About Samuel McCree

Samuel "Gentoku" McCree is a Mindful Fitness thought leader, personal trainer, and mindful living coach from Portland, OR. He trained for two years at a Zen monastery, is an endurance athlete, and founder of MindFitMove. You can find his blog and a free Ebook on Your Sexy Brain at mindfitmove.com.  

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