How mindfulness can help panic attacks
This might seem a funny topic to launch the year on, but I chose it due to the sheer number of people who have told me they’ve recently experienced a panic attack. Highly functioning people who cope well under pressure and do not have a history of anxiety. So, actually, this is the perfect time to be addressing such a topic as a lot of us find ourselves under significant pressure in January, work wise, financially, and even from our own aspirations.
New Year, New You
The New Year is such a great time of hope and beginnings. It’s wonderful to have a natural reset point in the calendar: A time to look back over the past 365 days and reflect on achievements, events, lessons learned, and to think about what we’d like for ourselves in the coming 12 months. Whether we undertake this as a formal process or simply as a declaration at midnight that “2019 is going to be the year!” we have something in mind, consciously or unconsciously, some change we’d like to effect in our lives.
Sometimes our plans and intentions fall by the wayside as life trundles on, and other times we really try hard to stick at a resolution. Either way, panic can arise when we feel overwhelmed by where we are right now, how we got here, or by the perceived enormity of how to get to where we’d like to be. Alternatively, you might not know why you feel panicky at all – the feeling comes over you seemingly out of nowhere. Perhaps this is even worse for the sufferer as the unpredictability brings with it the fear of recurrence at a (more) inopportune moment.
My first panic attack
I found the concept of a panic attack quite odd when, in my first year of work, a friend undertook a course in CBT to address hers. It wasn’t something I knew anything about, but looking back on this, that is even more odd, because during my final year exams at university, I experienced a terrible one. So terrible in fact, that it nearly caused me to fail one of my four exams. The symptoms went something like this. I started writing the answer to the question, which I knew inside out, knowledge flowing with ease from my mind onto the page. Halfway through this question, it was as if someone turned off the tap and the flow came to an abrupt halt. I had to stop what I was doing, go up there and search around to try and find the deep well of water, but all I came across were distinct little puddles, sheer remnants of the pool I’d previously had access to. Feeling I had no choice, I put a big line through that half-answered essay question, and tried to answer the second option, only to encounter the same issue.
On exiting the exam, I was terribly upset. I went to the library to study for my next one, and suddenly I started having a heart attack. It was terrifying. My heart was absolutely pounding, my ears were ringing, and I felt dizzy. I went straight to the university medical centre where a nurse tried to convince me I wasn’t having a heart attack and that it was panic. I was quite insistent on my self-diagnosis, unwilling to believe a psychological state could cause this level of physiological symptoms. I believe I sat there until it passed and was then sent on my merry way. Not to blame anyone else, but I can’t have been given much insight or advice on how to deal with this because I didn’t even remember I’d had a panic attack. I’d just written it off as an anomaly and self-medicated with Rescue Remedy recommended by a friend, through all my exams since.
So what is a panic attack?
A panic attack is your body’s fight or flight response being activated by a perceived threat. A survival mechanism, the mind does not differentiate between an actual threat to life, like being physically attacked, and other threats, real or imagined. Stress hormones flood the body, the key player being adrenaline. The good news is that it will pass, usually in a few minutes. The really good news is that it can only last a maximum of 30 minutes before the effects of adrenaline wear off; after all, this is an emergency response system, activated at high cost – it’s not designed to be activated indefinitely.
When I was asked how long I thought a panic attack could last, I answered, “10 hours.” I was deadly serious, and I had based the answer on personal experience. When presented with the fact that it could actually only last 30 minutes, it was like a ray of light peeping through the aperture. The fear of experiencing an episode that bad again had become immense. But what was this 10 hour panic attack I claimed to have had then? It was a wave of attacks, one after another. Although it felt like one very long, continuous attack, the stress response was actually being triggered again and again. Panicking because I was panicking. Armed with this very useful insight, I was able to stop that vicious cycle far more quickly, and eventually was able to deploy my go to weapon to prevent it fully taking hold.
How do we stop a panic attack?
When you’re in a state of panic, you need something quick and simple to switch off the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response (i.e. stop flooding your body with stress hormones) and re-engage the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest qualities (i.e. the state we really want to be living in for the majority of the time).
Now is not the time for a complex technique, nor is it the time to read through a menu of choices and pick one that tickles your fancy. You need a go to, and here it is.
Mindful Technique: Instant Calm
This is a really simple technique that we could all benefit from having in our back pocket for moments when we feel overwhelmed or panicked. Just five breaths taken in this manner will stem the flow of stress hormones in your body and bring your nervous system into a state of calm.
1. Posture – sit upright in a chair and plant both feet firmly on the ground. Bring a sense of dignity and ease (not more tension) to the posture.
2. Awareness – lower your gaze or close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breathing.
3. Breathing – breathe through your nose and feel your abdomen rise with each inhale and fall with each exhale. Place a hand on your abdomen at first to help you breathe from the stomach rather than higher up in the chest.
4. Breathe in for a count of four, and out for a count of four. Repeat this for five rounds of breath.
Tip: The hard part of this is remembering to do it when you are in that panic and then managing to follow it through. Practise it a couple of times a day so it’s there waiting for you when you need it. I have also made a video of me leading you through the technique as many, including myself, find it very helpful to have some support until it becomes more embedded.
The above is a technique to address the acute symptom of a panic attack. If you find you are experiencing repeated panic attacks, or chronic anxiety, do seek help to treat the underlying cause. Check out the Resources page for useful links to signpost you to relevant information and support.