If you have ever had a panic or anxiety attack you know the overwhelming fear that comes with it.
Your breath becomes shallow; heart is pounding, sweating, paralyzing fear, thoughts coming faster than can be processed, fear… of death.
What’s happening to me, It’s a heart attack…I’m going to die, I can’t move…sweating, tunnel vision, no sound…too much sound...Why won’t it stop…What is wrong with me?
This real experience can be minimized by those who do not understand. For the sufferers it is difficult to explain and to stop once begun. It becomes an unending circle. Fear of having anxiety creates more anxiety and more anxiety leads to panic and more panic leads to more anxiety and OMG…is it happening again? What am I going to do…I can’t take this feeling…it’s too much…when will it stop…am I crazy?…I’m confused…
Anxiety is a reaction to a threat, real or imagined. Whether it is real or imagined doesn’t actually matter the experience is identical. If we think we are being attacked or if we are actually under attack our nervous system reacts with the same automatic physiological adaptations. This is great news if you are being chased by a Saber-toothed Tiger, but not so helpful if your boss wants the report “RIGHT NOW!”
The symptoms usually peak at about the 10 minute mark and your body begins to recover. Of course, the story you tell yourself about the experience can prolong it.
If you get caught up in the thinking of “OMG, this will never end…I can’t stop this…there is no way out…” you are perpetuating the experience. The most helpful way to understand this is that anxiety is sensation, only sensation, and it will pass. I know this isn’t very comforting in the moment of your panic. The best way to combat an anxiety attack is a good defense. Be like a Scout. BE PREPARED.
There are two strategies I recommend.
#1. Establish a meditation practice.
Big surprise right! Of course a meditation teacher is going to recommend meditation!! But the research is overwhelming. Having a regular practice creates more stability in your life, less reactivity to stressful situations and in turn a more responsive approach to life’s ups and downs. It trains your brain to focus on one thing at a time and this is a SUPERPOWER!!
But here’s the catch, well 2 catches: It only works if you do it and doing it when you are having a panic attack probably won’t work. It is a prophylactic solution. More like taking a vitamin than an aspirin. Are you with me? Good.
While not an exact meditation practice it has its roots in the same methods. Focus your attention on what is actually presently happening. It is a technique to get you out of your head and into the present moment. If you follow the cues you will move away from the sensations of your experience and move into the present moment where everything is actually OK. Here’s a helpful graphic you can print, keep handy or simply memorize.
Once you understand that panic and anxiety attacks are temporary, only sensations and will generally pass in about 10 minutes, you have the basic information you need to manage this troubling sensation. Add a daily meditation practice to this and a plan of what to do in the event of another attack and you are ready to roll.
For those of you with more stubborn anxiety issues, I recommend seeing a therapist who can work with you longer on specific strategies and calming practices. (yes…I know, I’m a therapist. I definitely know the advantages of counseling and meditation!)
I’d love to hear your experiences trying these techniques. Leave a comment!!
Robin, The Meditation Addict