“Whatever you fight, you strengthen, and what you resist, persists.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Sunday started out with a panic attack.
It wasn’t little butterflies in the stomach like right before a first kiss. It wasn’t the feeling of anticipation as a rollercoaster slowly climbs the big hill before the drop.
This panic attack felt like I was about to jump off a cliff, while being chased by clowns. Not cute clowns—scary ones. The kind of clowns that were in the paintings at my pediatrician’s office when I was a kid. The clowns that smiled at me smugly when I was getting emergency asthma shots, unable to breathe.
Panic attacks are my suffering at its most profound. Over the years, I’ve become an expert on them.
I was twenty-nine when I had my first major panic attack. I was sitting in a hotel room in Sunnyvale, California, getting ready to drive to the beach, and I couldn’t decide whether to eat at a local restaurant or wait until I got to Santa Cruz.
Bang! It hit me out of nowhere.
That’s how it happens for me. I can handle a major crisis like a medical emergency or aiding in a car accident with unthinking grace. It’s the day-to-day living that sometimes gets me.
Suffering the break-up of a romantic relationship a few months ago brought the panic attacks back out of hiding. Instead of going through a depression, I felt riddled by anxiety.
A lot of the anxiety had to do with the fact that I was going to have to deal with my ex in a working situation. It was compounded with the awful things I was telling myself over and over again in my head. It was extremely painful and maddening.
At least I have some skills and resources for dealing with panic and anxiety, and I’ve gotten a lot better at using them.
I’ve found meditation and present moment awareness to be effective in dealing with panic attacks.
I know that some people reading this will think that they can’t meditate. However, there are lots of different kinds of meditation and lots of different techniques we can utilize.
If we think of a panic attack as a villain who steals away pieces of our soul, these are the three techniques that he wouldn’t want us to know about.
One of the most powerful things that you can do in the midst of a panic attack is to accept it. I know that seems to go against all rational thought.
Don’t I want the panic attack to go away? Sure I do. But noticing the panic and accepting that it’s visiting me is the first step. Realizing that I’m having a panic attack instead of being lost in the dream of panic creates some space to work with it.
One way to work with it is to lie down on the floor and feel the anxiety and panic flowing through the body. Accept that it’s there. Feel it completely.
I notice my chest feeling tight and my heart pounding, notice the sweating or feeling of being light-headed or dizzy. I let the anxiety develop completely, inviting it to overcome me like a wave of uncomfortableness.
Yes, it can get pretty nasty. But usually at the point when I feel like my whole being is going to explode from so much anxiety, something almost unimaginable happens: a release.
The panic begins to fade, moving away from me like the tide slowly going back out to sea. I’m left a little tired, a little drained, but also relieved.
It’s important to know that a panic attack won’t last.
Nothing lasts forever—not pleasant things, not unpleasant things, not panic attacks.
It’s not necessary to lie on the floor.
Sometimes I find myself in certain social situations where being stretched out on the floor would look just plain nutty. This technique works just as well sitting in my truck, behind a desk, or hiding in a bathroom stall. We do what we must.
A lot of people say to take deep breaths when you’re having a panic attack. I think this is sound advice, but I like to put a slightly different spin on it.
Take a walk.
That’s right. Go walking.
Walking is awesome because it gets the blood flowing, the heart pumping, and if it’s a brisk walk, it forces you to breathe more deeply.
Sometimes I feel like my anxieties and fears are chasing me, but I’m walking away from them. Other times, I just feeling like I’m burning off some built-up energy that has nowhere to go.
Running would probably also be helpful, but I will only run in the event of The Zombie Apocalypse.
Another really effective technique that I practice is to name the feelings and thoughts as I’m having a panic attack. I learned this technique from listening to Tara Brach’s podcasts on iTunes. It’s super effective and very simple to learn. (*Note: Tara Brach’s podcasts are free on iTunes.)
In the midst of the panic attack, I focus on any feelings or thoughts that are arising and name them either out loud or silently to myself. I sometimes even grab a notebook and write them. For instance:
I feel tightness in my chest
I feel my racing heartbeat.
My mouth is dry, my head aches, and I’m a little dizzy.
I feel like I’m going to fall off of a cliff.
I’m feeling bad about feeling bad because this anxiety destroys relationships.
I feel like no one is ever going to love me again.
My jaw is clenching.
There’s a knot in my stomach.
I feel like a loser.
I feel like I don’t belong here.
I feel like I suck.
I’m afraid I’m going to fail.
I hear a pounding in my ears.
I feel unqualified, unworthy, unnecessary.
Once again, it’s helpful to remind myself that this is a panic attack, that it will pass, but it needs to be allowed to.
I remind myself that this awful time in my life will pass like all the others. How do I know this? If I look back over the course of my life, I can see it.
I’ve had some great times. They’ve passed. I’ve had some awful times. They’ve passed, too. I can see that everything before this has passed.
This also will pass. It has to.
These simple techniques can work, but you have to put them into practice.
It’s like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport; the more you practice, the better you get at it. If one of the techniques isn’t working, I switch to another one.
I believe that, in the moment, we always pick the right one.
About James Gummer
James Gummer has no idea what's going on and is learning to be okay with that. He writes in Baltimore, Maryland where he also teaches drumming, qigong, and meditation. His collection of essays will be available soon. Visit him at james-writes.com.