This is part of a series of blogs about handling intense emtions and looks at mindfulness and panic attacks. My previous blog went through the steps of the Panic Attack Drill and this blog is a variation on that, which brings in tools from the practice of mindfulness.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety. Panic attacks can also have physical symptoms, including shaking, feeling disorientated, nausea, rapid, irregular heartbeats, dry mouth, breathlessness, sweating and dizziness. The symptoms of a panic attack are not dangerous, but can be very frightening.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply the ability to be fully present in the moment and can have numerous benefits, everything from decreased stress and sadness to increased levels, focus and happiness, according to research. Simple to describe but not so simple to put into practice! Staying fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment — free from distraction or judgment, and aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them – is not what we usually do!
So mindfulness is a skill that requires a certain amount of regular practice of mindfulness so that we can apply it to everyday life.
Mindfulness and panic attacks
Mindfulness will help you investigate what is driving your panicky emotions, in order for you to become free from them. Practice these skills the next time you feel panic beginning to rise:
- Before you begin, ask yourself whether this is a good time to explore your feelings and practice some mindfulness.
Do you feel safe and in control? If you do feel safe, proceed with the next step. If you do not feel safe, then it is okay to wait and attempt this practice at a more secure time, perhaps when you’ve returned to the privacy of your home.
- Your practice begins as soon as you tune in to and become mindful with your breathing.
Wherever you are—out and about, having coffee with a friend, in the workplace, or walking down the aisle of a supermarket—you carry your breath everywhere, and it is your focal point for maintaining your connection to the present wherever you go. Be mindful of your breathing, in and out, noticing the sensations of warmth as you breath in and coolness as you breath out, experiencing the rise and fall, the in and out of each breath.
- Take this moment to recognise any and all feelings that are with you now.
If you feel out of control, then just acknowledge this as a feeling, (“I feel slightly out of control, a bit edgy or jittery”) without attaching details or stories behind it. Give yourself permission to just identify and acknowledge the emotions that are coming up and let them be. You may be telling yourself “I feel as if something horrible is about to happen” or “ I feel as though I’ve lost touch with reality.” Make space in this moment to simply let these thoughts and feelings emerge and try to stay with them, just as they are.
- You may experience a strong impulse to resist or fight against these painful and terrifying emotions
We ALL have a natural tendency to strive toward what feels good and to push against what feels bad. For this exercise, you are practicing non-striving: you are not trying to change your feelings or shift them in a different direction. Just let them be what they are. The less energy you spend trying to resist or alter your panicky emotions, the lesser the hold your panic can have on you.
- Remember to be aware of your breathing and to connect again with the here and now.
Emotions come and go
With practice, you will come to learn what is driving your feelings and to let them run their natural course. Strong emotions come and go – they can be fierce and unrelenting for a time, but eventually they fade and both they and you can move on.
Mindfulness invites us to bring nonjudgmental awareness into any panicky emotions or feelings, perhaps to whether they are related to memories from the near or distant past or to fears about the future or not to anything in particular that we can identify. It doesn’t come easily at first to fully acknowledge and experience these feelings in your body and mind and let them be – but it can actually be the first step to managing them successfully.
You may discover that within the panic is a whole spectrum of feelings and experiences that are causing the agitation or whatever emotion you are feeling. When you begin to acknowledge what has not been acknowledged, the doorway of understanding can begin to open. By learning to turn toward your panic, you may experience more freedom than you could have ever imagined.
Why do we experience panic attacks?
There are many different reasons and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly why – here are some of the most common reasons:
- Chronic (ongoing) stress – nothing particular has happened that day or in the moments beforehand, but the long term stress has caused the body to regularly produce higher than usual levels of stress chemicals such as adrenaline – this may suddenly tip over, like a pressure cooker effect, into a full blown panic attack.
- Habitual hyperventilation – we may well be totally unaware of this but shallow breathing (sometimes combined with taking in huge gulps of air after having held our breath for a few seconds) disturbs the balance of blood gases because there is not enough carbon dioxide in the blood. Again nothing has happened externally but the body interprets the breathing signals as “danger – implement fight or flight mode”.
- Intense physical exercise – for some people, this may cause extreme reactions. If someone is experiencing panic attacks, it is often advisable to restrict intense aerobic physical exercise for a while until things settle down.
- Excessive caffeine intake – the caffeine in coffee, tea and other beverages is a strong stimulant and again should be restricted if someone is experiencing panic attacks.
- Certain medical conditions – heart disease, thyroid problems, asthma, inner ear complaints, respiratory disorders or they can result from drug withdrawal or as a side effect of certain medications.
- A sudden change of environment – such as walking into an overcrowded, hot or stuffy environment – can bring on a panic attack – again the body responding to a sense of threat often before the mind has registered it.
Book a counselling session today!
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
See also: How to Manage Intense Emotions