The first time I had a panic attack I thought I was dying. I don’t mean that dramatically; I actually thought it was the end. The sharp chest pains, inability to get air, blurry vision; I was certain I was having a pulmonary embolism, heart attack, or aneurysm of some kind.
According to the National Institute of Mental Illness, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting 18 percent of adults. Mental illness is also highly stigmatized, which is why it took me four years from my first identified panic attack to actually seek help for my worsening symptoms.
Meditation rescued me from paralyzing anxiety.
I have always been a tightly wound person. Even in childhood, I was incredibly competitive and hard on myself. I packed my schedule tight with sports, extracurriculars, and bonus classes. I also had other emotional baggage ranging from typical teen angst to unhealthy family patterns. I experienced what I thought was normal stress given the circumstances.
But when I was just a year out of college, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. I was working three jobs, and I had just started dating my now-husband. Suddenly, my stress symptoms morphed from insomnia and nail-biting to hyperventilation and body-numbness. But the worst part was how my anxiety caused me to retreat; to freeze; I became paralyzed by my worry of inadequacy and the overwhelming feeling that I lacked control.
My mom died three years later – 13 days after our wedding. I experienced several phases of grief, but it was my anxiety in dealing with my emotions while trying to maintain my full plate that caused me to cozy up with my anxiety, embracing the torture of it, while slipping silently into depression. On the surface, I doubt anyone knew what I was going through. But I dreaded doing anything; in fact, on a trip to Montreal, I made my husband pull over and proceeded to hyperventilate in a fetal position on someone’s front yard in Canada. It was not my finest moment.
After this, I started seeing a therapist and we spent the first few sessions just unpacking all my emotional baggage, which triggered several episodes of panic attacks. She coached me on breathing through them. She taught me how to meditate and connect back to my body, and she provided me with several tools to cope with my anxiety and bring myself back to my center – to safety, where I could think logically and calmly.
How does meditation work?
Some speculate that meditation is the act of clearing your mind. In reality, at least for me, meditation is about focusing on breathing and acknowledging my thoughts as they come, rather than fighting or suppressing them. Deep breathing throughout this process actually helps free my mind to process more difficult thoughts and feelings. Oxygen activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to counter the fight-or-flight response we have to stress, reducing my heart rate and allowing my mind to think more clearly and mindfully.
It didn’t happen overnight, but I did eventually learn how to manage my anxiety. I’m not “cured;” in fact, I still very much struggle with anxiety. I still have stretches of time when I find myself hiding away, unable to move forward. I ignore phone calls and messages and avoid social settings. But I don’t have panic attacks that way I once did; I know my triggers and have worked hard to establish boundaries while tapping into my authentic self. It’s amazing what just a little breathing can do!
Tips and Resources for Using Meditation to Counter Panic Attacks:
When I feel an attack coming on, one of my favorite exercises is finding a way to get or stay grounded. I sit or lay in a comfortable position, take a deep breath, and begin identifying my surroundings in the following way:
- Notice 3 things I see, 3 things I hear, and 3 things I feel.
- Notice 2 things I see, 2 things I hear, 2 things I feel.
- Notice 1 thing I see, 1 thing I hear, 1 thing I feel.
You can say the same things each time, but the purpose of this exercise is to feel in control of your surroundings.
In my earliest days of learning meditation, I would simply work on breathing.
- Sit or lie down comfortably.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, counting to five.
- Breathe out through your mouth, counting down from five.
For guided meditations and body scans, check out some of these great apps:
Finally, if you’re looking to read up on meditation and mindfulness, here are my favorite resources:
- The Four Agreements, by don Miguel Ruiz
- Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment―and Your Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- The Universe Has Your Back, by Gabrielle Bernstein
Meditation can be a useful tool to address anxiety and has helped me tremendously. How have you learned to live with and keep anxiety under control?