The mindful approach
We are all aware of how terrifying a panic attack can feel. Our minds race, and the possible outcome of a body and mind not in control. We resort to every coping mechanism we have, and when they fail, we feel vulnerable, we resist and fight, in whatever manner we feel best trained.
I want to share with you my insight into panic attacks and fear in general, that turned my life around. It turned a life of fear into one of steadfast courage.
We have been going about this all wrong.
We have been struggling in order to avoid the struggle
Where does our answer to a panic free life lie? The answer can be found by observing Nature. Nature is the key to learning about adversity. Nature is a great teacher -watch how it deals with adversity. The tree bends with the wind , the river flows around the rock, summer gives way to Fall. Nature never struggles ,never resists , everything flows and so must we when confronted with a panic attack.
We have been taught to pull away, and guard ourselves from fear. To either fight it, (with our best coping technique) or simply close down and run to a safe refuge. All of these actions create a struggle within us. Like a tug of war, we pull against the on coming panic, and with each pull our fear increases. We continuously think in the back of our mind “what if I loose this fight” “what will happen, will I be hospitalised? will I die or go insane.” As we think these thoughts, we tighten our mental grip, and pull away from the fear and resist. Sometimes we are lucky, we are in good fighting condition and the fear appears to subside. Other times we lose outright (usually after a few cups of strong coffee) and experience complete panic -as fear engulfs our emotions. Whichever way it transpires, we are always left with one lasting reoccurring thought -When will this strike again? When will I have to do battle with terror again? The problem suddenly becomes apparent. We attempt our best to control the situation, and will not allow our bodies to flow in their heightened manner when they are going through the fight or flight response. We close down -tighten up our muscles as though we were preparing for an external impact.
We observe these sensations -the quickening of breath, or the increased heart rate. Instead of letting them take their course, we immediately try to curtail and control them, to enforce a state of order. Our fear is losing control, -losing control of the situation. We become like parents shouting at a hyperactive child to “settle down” or “be quiet” we try to regain lost ground and win back some sense of peace. Sometimes this works -more often than not, it makes the situation worse.
We live within a society that still places a high value on keeping within the norm, staying within the boundaries (for fear of being unaccepted by others). When you have a panic attack, the last thing you want is everyone around you to knowing what you are going through. You would much rather exit without any notice or concern from others. So many fear the public embarrassment of people knowing they suffer from panic attacks, that they often refrain from a visit to their local doctor.
So where does this leave us? The first clue to successful recovery lies in our ability to run with a panic attack, not away. To use a cliché, we need to ‘flow with it’. Become the observer of fear, not the victim.
There is no struggle but the one we create ourselves. There is no fear if there is no struggle. What does that mean in practical terms? It means if you embrace the fear, rather than fight it or close down on it (as it rises within you) then you will have no fear! The question of course is ‘How do we embrace fear?’
We observer it. We observe and do not react.
The initial fear or anxiety that triggers a panic attack, stems from a struggle within us -usually at a deeper subconscious level. What caused that initial struggle is irrelevant. For the purpose of this book, (as it is as varied as those who suffer from panic attacks) what we are looking for here, is a conscious recognition of that fear, and now a new an empowered response. A response that will defuse the panic attack in its tracks, and restore confidence.
As the fear arises, you will notice the familiar patterns it presents itself .For some it may be simply a feeling of unease in the stomach, or a shortness of breath .I’ m sure you are well aware of the initial signals of a panic attack. They usually begin very subtle and increase in strength. When this happens stop what you are doing and if possible find yourself a comfortable place to be alone. You are not setting the scene to do battle as before -this time you are preparing space – space to invite and welcome the fear.
Embrace the fear as it rises within you. As it increases, send it a warm welcome. That’s right! Send a message that you are inviting this feeling. Treat it like an old friend, coming to visit. You are welcoming it closer so you may observe it. It’s not unusual to be feeling a little apprehensive at this point, as you have never been in this situation before. You are actually inviting and greeting the panic that normally upsets and terrifies you.
–Keep firm. Just watch as the feeling of fear comes closer.
(For some its helps to give the fear an image such as a small child beginning to throw a tantrum. If you are visual type of person this may help)
Let the fear wash over you. Feel each and every sensation in detail. We are not trying to get away from the panic attack -in fact we are actually trying to fully experience it. There is little difference in a panic attack and a roller coaster ride, both are exhilarating experiences. The roller coaster does not send panic through us, as we are confident that it will shortly come to a safe stop. This is the same attitude we need to adopt towards panic attacks. It is only our interpretation that differs. We are looking to change our interpretation.
Keep with the sensations, watch as they decrease, and rise again
- a wave over your body.
There will come a point for many of you, where you can observe and experience to a point, and then it will overwhelm you, you will want to fight it or retreat to safety. This is the vital point, as it signals the moment to use the technique that has made all the difference in my life. The ace up your sleeve, so to speak. At this key moment, when you feel all is lost, and you cant continue observing and experiencing the strong sensations -ask your body for more
You must be kidding! You think to yourself -I can hardly stand this! let alone take an increased dosage.
Ask for more. The request for more is the most empowering statement you make when confronting a panic attack. It makes a strong statement, that behind it all, you are still really in control, and always have been -you were just observing up until this moment. Like the roller coaster ride you were allowing yourself to experience the sensations of fear. Now you are consciously moving towards the fear, requesting that it shows you more of these unusual bodily sensations.
Your fear has no option but to retreat. You are allowing it no room to manoeuvre.
You are not demanding more in a aggressive manner, but just embracing more of what you are experiencing. The sensations are interesting, and you want your body to experience an increased amount of activity. What you are doing, is stating confidence in yourself and your body -to be able to withstand and experience any amount of anxiety that may come your way.
The root of your fear is the fear of ‘losing control’ losing control of, your body (having a heart attack) or losing control of your mind.
Fear does not know how to handle this request, it is completely confused by this new response, it has no option but to surrender and dissipate. Fear feeds off fear, this technique extinguishes the fuel on which a panic attack is driven. It now has no struggle nothing to feed off, and just for extra measure (as the fear wanes) silently say to your fear “is that the best you can do?” “ come back ! Have you nothing else to terrify me with?” As it leaves, which it will, wish it well as it leaves your body, allowing calm and balance to return.
When done correctly, the results of this technique are instantaneous. You will immediately feel the turning point and the parasympathetic nervous system, which we spoke of earlier, coming into action restoring calm.
You may notice the fear trying to make a comeback i.e. something terrifying, like a fearful thought crossing your mind. Don’t worry. This is just a poor final attempt to engage you again. Observe it as you would a cloud passing overheads in the sky, and let it go. Remember -observe don’t react. Remain firm continue to observe your mind and body. Rest in the knowledge, that what ever comes your way, you can handle it. Let that be your daily mantra.
“I can handle any situation life throws my way”
In the beginning you will probably find it hard to believe in yourself,as you ask for more. This is natural, you may find yourself asking for more and then immediately retreating for fear things will become too much to handle. Practise and practise. The more you use this technique, the more you will see how empowering it is. In time, you will reach a point where you feel a panic attack approach, and will genuinely welcome it, with all your mind and body.
I realise some of you are thinking –‘No way!. I’m not asking for more panic sensations, knowing my luck that’s exactly what I’ll get, and it will finally push me over the edge.’ You fear that if you do in fact ask for more fear more panic (when it’s at its height) that the request will antagonise and create more problems for you.
Trust yourself. Trust in your own ability to handle the situation.
Apply what you have read here, practise it, it will be your most useful ally in your scariest moments.
Lets take an example and put this into practice.
You are on a train and have just sat down. It has been a long day, you are tired, and are looking forward to sleeping on the journey. The whistle blows and the train doors slam shut with a loud bang. An anxious thought flashes through your mind.
What if I get a panic attack on this train? How will I cope? , I won’t be able to get off!
It begins. Your chest suddenly feels tight, you notice your heart beat increasing. You quickly look around. Any friendly faces you may be consoled by ? No The panic attack begins. Lets look first at the way you may have been dealing with it to date.
As your heartbeat increases, you become edgy. You may have learnt some breathing techniques, so you put them into effect. One of the problems with breathing techniques, although useful the results never seem quick or apparent enough, so therefore are rarely carried through. Many people don’t like to focus on their breathing as they feel this only causes a sense of smothering and increased anxiety.
So the breathing doesn’t seem to be working. Most likely your next move is to get up and walk around. Into to the toilet, where you can be alone. Standing up, and walking around makes you feel less trapped. You close the toilet door and sit on the seat.
This feels a little better. It is good to be alone -away from anyone who might witness you in distress, and making a fool of yourself. The problem is that you are starting to feel trapped again and you are running out of places to run to. You reach inside your pocket and pull out a Xanex your emergency relaxant, for panic attacks. Maybe it’s not a pharmaceutical relaxant you use but a small bottle of alcohol or even rosary beads. Whatever your last line of defence is it better work. If not you will have to use the ultimate coping strategy -pull the emergency cord and jump train. This situation, like most panic attacks is one of an escalation of panic, and an exhaustion of the coping techniques that can be used.
Now lets try the same scenario with the new understanding of the previous pages.
As you hear the train door slam; the fearful thoughts rise -this time you don’t react with terror, but simple observation -maybe even slight excitement as you are going to be presented with a new opportunity to learn more about your panic attacks.
I am not saying you are not going to experience fear, that’s unavoidable, but the difference, is that whatever you are going to experience you are going to throw yourself into it -head first.
Your heart is pounding faster now, and you notice your breathing is becoming short and rapid. You decide to keep feeling all of this -one hundred precent. A thought creeps in, and tells you to get up, move around -go to the bathroom. You decide not to. You tell yourself that if it gets really intense; then you might consider it as a last option but for the moment you are going to ride it out -where you are.
You are now in the moment of the panic attack. You are not listening to your fearful thoughts just experiencing all the unusual bodily sensations. You are pleased with yourself. -You realise you are riding the wave, (so to speak) and haven’t even began your first coping technique. Then it intensifies. You start to feel intense fear in your stomach, as your left arm vibrates with pins and needles. You are at the climax of high anxiety. You examine all your options -shout out, escape, or invite more. So you do you ask for more. In fact you demand with firmness that the panic increase so you experience the full range of the emotion. A few seconds pass. It hasn’t intensified so you ask again and once again. Nothing. In fact things are starting to calm down. Your heart isn’t racing like before, and your chest feels somewhat lighter. It’s coming to an end. Now you can really feel confident! Not only did you get through a panic attack, but you actually ran with it, and experienced it all the way. You stood your ground (not in a defensive manner) but as an explorer, looking to feel the full range of your experiences. There is no lingering fear of a returning panic attack on your train journey, because you are confident, that should one come, you will ride it out like the last. You close your eyes, and relax confidently into your seat.
What you are doing is befriending fear, in a non-confrontational manner. You are inviting it into your life, making it yours
This is a complete U-turn on what has been previously taught.
We are normally told to cope using coping techniques, and after a significant period of time, you grow out of your anxiety. I’m offering a opportunity to bypass that disempowered approach. Go for the finish line. Try the complete reverse -befriend your fear, then watch over a short period of time as your anxiety loosens its grip.
This is by no means a new technique. We can see from the past how this was applied to many different areas of living a successful life.
The ancient Chinese martial arts all use this approach to self-defence. When faced by an attacker; initiates of these defence schools were taught that the greatest defence, was never to engage in the first place. To simply observe and walk away. Should an attack ensue after the path of non-resistance had been tried, the initiates were taught moves such as hand-blocks to channel the energy of the aggressor in a harmless way, and let it run it’s course. Eventually the aggressor (after finding him/herself flat on the ground one too many times) backs off and retreats. The aggressor becomes harmless. The danger is disarmed.
I describe fear simplistically -like an external force, an aggressor that pays you a visit. The truth with panic attacks, is that it is all our own creation, -a game we play with our self. There is no force out to get you it is all an internal drama.