Spring art fair season is in full swing, and with it comes the annual emotional roller coaster. From ecstasy (Roberta Smith called your solo booth’s artist “breathtaking”!) to despair (the VIP collector you’ve been schmoozing for months spotted canoodling with the competition!), you’re really going to feel it all these next few months.
And of course, no art fair experience is complete without a panic attack—or five. Maybe you realize you had spinach in your teeth when you smiled at David Zwirner. Maybe you spot your star artist making out with the Hauser & Wirth director at the afterparty. Maybe you’ve had five espressos before noon and your hands are shaking so bad you drop an oyster on your white blouse. We’ve all been there.
When situations like these inevitably arise, it’s important to be prepared. That’s why we’re giving you this handy, step-by-step guide for how to fight off a panic attack at an art fair.
We really can’t stress this one enough. When you feel those familiar symptoms coming on, breathing is your first line of defense. It’s simple: just check if you’re still inhaling and exhaling—you know, those two things that keep you alive. Usually, you’ll realize that your whole chest and stomach has turned into one giant Gordian knot of nerves. No way any oxygen is getting through there. It’s like breathing through a straw that’s squished closed in the lid of your cold brew: it just doesn’t work.
Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893)
The good news is that getting your breath back in order will solve 99% of your problems. But that’s also the bad news, because it’s much easier said than done. To get some much-needed oxygen back in your system, you need to relax. Of course, relaxing is the least natural thing to do in the middle of a panic attack, but try your best. To start with, take 5 or 10 deep belly breaths. Literally, put your hands on your stomach and focus on inflating like a balloon. If you your hands are moving in and out, you’re doing it right. It might not fix the crisis that got you into panic mode, but you’ll feel a whole lot better.
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Her Eyes are With Her Thoughts and They are Far Away (1897).
We all have stories looping through our heads all day, erryday. As you’re doing whatever you’re doing—say, talking to your booth’s visitors—your brain is also busy interpreting whatever is happening. I’m killing this sale. These rich white guys are putty in my hands. This is an Oscar-worthy performance. I am God’s gift to emerging artists. Or: I’m totally fucking this up. Did I really just use the word “arresting”? Seven years of graduate education and I can’t think of any other adjective?? I’m officially a worse actress than Blake Lively in that beachy movie where she basically just got cast to look hot in a bikini. Except I defs don’t look that hot in a bikini.
If you’re in the middle of a panic attack, your inner dialogue is probably skewed towards the second version. That’s okay. After you’ve checked your breathing, now it’s time to move on to phase two. Wherein you need to shift your inner dialogue from picturing yourself as pre-makeover Andy from The Devil Wears Prada to post-makeover Andy. Don’t delude yourself; just flip your perspective. Instead of letting yourself spiral into helplessness, become your own spin doctor and learn to flip even the biggest disaster into an opportunity. Lost a VIP client? You get to put all that creativity and people skills to work and scour for new ones in unexpected places! You get the gist.
John William Waterhouse, Cleopatra (c. 1887)
Now we’re getting into slightly woo-woo territory, but if it’s good enough for Gwyneth Paltrow, it’s good enough for me. (I’ll even go out on a limb in support of the yoni egg, don’t @ me.)
In addition to constructing stories, we’re also constantly visualizing our lives. I’m not just talking about wondering if your red lipstick is still on—although that happens, too. But it’s actually a bit more subtle than that. As you go through your day, you’re projecting an image of yourself in a certain light. Crucially, this translates directly into how you feel. Think about body image: when you picture your physical body in a positive way, you feel better about yourself as a whole, and vice versa.
That’s why, in the middle of a panic attack, it can be really helpful to visualize yourself as strong, powerful, capable, or whatever quality you need to channel at the moment. It’s like changing your thinking, but one step further; humans are super visual, so holding an image is even more powerful than abstract thoughts.
Here’s how you do it. After you’ve done your belly breaths and checked in with your inner dialogue, it’s time to bust out that vivid imagination that got you into this whole art world business in the first place. If you can, duck into the ladies’ room and close your eyes. Now, you have options. The slightly more tame one: picture yourself as the most badass version of yourself, the version that breaks record sales on Vermeers before her first cup of coffee, bathes in the tears of her enemies and scoffs in the face of Larry Gagosian. Would she be hyperventilating in a bathroom stall right now? No. And neither are you, after this exercise.
Botticelli, Pallas and Centaur (1482)
If you’re the kind of girl that secretly checks her horoscopes every day, balances her chakras once a week and has a deck of Tarot cards in her bag right now, then you might like the visualization 2.0 option. Pick an archetype—right now, do it—that you can turn to during future panic attacks. Greek goddesses, warrior princesses and Whoopi Goldberg are all fair game. Durga the Hindu warrior goddess is a fun one; so is Bjork. There are no right or wrong answers.
Once you have your gallerina guardian angel, you can call on her in times of stress and when you find yourself in crisis mode, you can visualize yourself as your archetypical alter ego. Would an Amazon warrior queen be in tears over an offhand comment by a 25 -year-old wannabe collector trust fund baby wearing head-to-toe Gosha Rubchinskiy? Probably not.
Okay, the New Age part of this article is officially over. This remedy is pure science. You know how aristocratic ladies used to keep smelling salts in their pockets to revive them when they fainted in their corsets? It’s basically the same thing.
Starting now, get in the habit of keeping a little bottle of a soothing essential oil in your bag at all times. Luckily, they’re all tiny. You can’t go wrong with lavender, but there are some great blends out there, too. Rub some on your wrists and temples in times of stress, and voilà, instant zen. Or, use a trick my yoga teacher friend taught me: dab some oil on the heels of your hands, then rub them together, cup your hands around your face and breathe like you’re breathing through an inhaler.
When you don’t have a cool mountain stream on hand, this is the next best thing. If you’re having a panic attack, you’re most likely flushed and overheating. Your first instinct will probably be to splash some cold water on your face, but this isn’t always the most practical, considering makeup.
Instead, run some cold water over your wrists and press a wet, cold paper towel on the back of your neck and inside your elbows and knees. Your wrists, ankles, neck, temples, top of your feet, thighs and insides of your elbows and knees are your body’s cooling points. That means that by cooling them, you can quickly cool off your whole body. When you only have a few seconds to spare, think of this as an instant hack.
Sure, you can always give yourself a pep talk in the mirror, old-school. But, no offense, you’re probably not going to be very convincing in the middle of a panic attack. That’s why it’s great to plan ahead. Before you head into an art fair, take a few minutes to download or bookmark some of your favorite motivational songs, speeches, quotes, whatever. You could even record yourself or a friend saying encouraging things ahead of time and play the audio when disaster strikes.
Here are some of our favorite chin-up moments:
Nigel’s tough-love monologue in The Devil Wears Prada.
Amber Wagner, a.k.a. @jstlbby, is liquid ghetto sunshine
Solange’s “Rise” – soothing and inspiring, all in two little stanzas.
When you need to remember that things are usually much better than they seem, try this classic Dumbledore speech.
And of course, the pre-game speech from Miracle.
It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but it can actually be comforting to imagine the worst possible outcome. Chances are, it’s not that bad. And even if it’s kind of bad, it might make you feel more in control to think that you’re prepared for the worst possible scenario. As an Indian guru once said, the worst thing that can ever happen to you is that you die, and you already know you’re going to die. Yeah, it’s supposed to be comforting.
The key is to be realistic. Don’t spiral down the rabbit hole that has you living on the streets, abandoned by everyone you love. Financial precariousness and homelessness are real dangers for many people, but considering you’re currently having a panic attack in a bathroom stocked with Kiehl’s products, that’s probably not what’s at stake here.
On the other hand, if you’re easily sucked into anxiety spirals, this is probably one to skip.
This one speaks for itself. Keep an album on your phone for this purpose.
Anything that makes you feel peaceful, loved and not panicky. This also serves as a great reminder that your life is so much more than this fair, this job and this panic attack. The thing about disasters is that they always pass, and when this one does, you have some pretty amazing things in your life to look forward to.
Panic attacks can make you feel like your entire world is compressed into one single moment. They make it nearly impossible to see beyond your current state; you feel like this breakdown is permanent and this is just your life now. But if you can manage to zoom out on your perspective, the all-encompassing storm that’s currently surrounding you becomes just a tiny speck on the horizon.
In the scope of the day, or even the fair, this situation might look like a huge-ass deal. But from the angle of the whole year, and especially your whole life, it probably doesn’t matter all that much. Before you know it, the moment will be gone and you’ll be busy stressing over the next thing. Which also doesn’t matter all that much. I’m not going to tell you what does matter—that’s for you to figure out on their own—but just realizing how infinitesimal your crisis actually is can be a huge relief.
If you want to go even further, let’s get cosmic. Shift your focus beyond yourself: to all the people at the fair, all the people in the city, all the people in the world. Each with their own agendas and their own panic attacks. But why stop there? Consider the entire universe. Just try. Here’s a short cut: download a Stephen Hawking audiobook and bookmark the really mind-bending bits to go back and listen to during crisis. It might seem like a weird panic attack solution, but it’s pretty much impossible to be upset about your own tiny problems when you’re pondering string theory and stardust.
Images via @sighswoon, WikiArt, @animalonplanet, @rhonasrabbits, @cheshirebackyardbarn, @puppy.addiction, TVNZ, Philosophy Talk