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Meditation Supports You through a Panic-Attack

Posted by: Dr. Tina Morse PsyD, MFT

Topic: Life Support

Panic attack anxiety

Do you know when you’re about to have a panic-attack? Can you feel it coming on? Meditation, visualization and medication may help you with anxiety and panic attacks. Susan Piver is a writer, teacher and New York Times Best Selling Author. She shares her personal experience of suffering through panic attacks and what she has done to support herself through them.

Empower Yourself!

Tina Morse

I received the from a reader the other day:

Q: “I was wondering if a meditation practice can help with panic attacks at all? Or if you know anyone who has suffered from panic attacks and been able to overcome them through meditation?”

A: I know someone who has suffered from panic attacks. Me. I still suffer from them, although far less frequently.

I don’t have a simple answer, like: “yes, meditation helps with panic attacks,” or, “no, it will not help at all.” The truth, for me, is that it has been extremely helpful on some levels and utterly unhelpful on others.

First, the unhelpful: When I began experiencing panic attacks (about 8 years ago), everyone I know told me to “just meditate.” Like they were surprised that a meditator could panic. Well believe me, I tried. When I could feel a panic attack begin, I would try to meditate through it–i.e. just start meditating, which means opening to and allowing the feelings, no matter how dreadful and debilitating. This totally did not work–it made the panic worse. Panic attacks are extremely claustrophobic, at least for me. In fact, claustrophobia is the reason for my panic attacks. Meditation felt like a further tightening up, not a letting go. So that didn’t work.

Next, I tried to “meditate” on something that, if it were to happen in reality, would ease my claustrophobia. The plane door opening (after landing). Imagining myself in a huge, open, sunny field. Etc, etc. These also made it worse because I only realized how far I was from such relief.

Throughout all of this I noticed that no matter what my tactic, my own mind would rear up and attack me with further desperate thoughts about how what I feared most was actually unpreventable. Every “reasonable” thought I could come up with was immediately defeated by 500 stronger (unreasonable) thoughts. I was no match for my own mind. I realized that what was being triggered was the part of my brain that was immune to reason altogether–my “lizard brain” or limbic system or most animalistic center. Trying to reason with it would be like trying to explain to my cats why they don’t have to be afraid of the vacuum cleaner. So I gave up trying to use my grown-up meditation instructor voice with myself and just took clonipin (a sedative)when I had to do stuff like fly on an airplane. This was actually very helpful because at that point, I could actually meditate. Seriously. I’m not suggesting that anyone medicate to meditate as it were, but when I took some kind of sedative, because I was so ridiculously hopped up on adrenalin, I was still very alert. It was like I could observe my experience from a safe distance, whereupon I saw the hopelessness of trying to talk myself out of panic and could instead sympathize with the part of me that, no matter how unreasonably, thought it was trapped against its will and about to be suffocated. I basically stopped feeling ashamed or chagrined about my panic attacks, which turned out to be a step in the right direction.

Second, the helpful: Meditation proved to be an invaluable tool in taking a broader view of my panic attacks. I knew that no matter how solid and real they seemed, they were not and if I could just introduce a little space (from clonipin or otherwise), I could work with the attacks. Not to cut them or stop them, but to relate to them as deeply wounded friends. Not easy, I know. When you’re hyperventilating and crying and sweating and shaking and basically desperate, all you want to do is get away. At least, I did. But through my practice, I found a way to soften a tiny bit toward my own experience and this enabled me to take the step that turned out to be most helpful of all: to request the kindness of others. On countless airplanes, elevators, and buses, I’ve asked actual human strangers if they would talk to me because I was claustrophobic and just a few moments of conversation would calm me down. In each and every case, the stranger agreed. They would smile at me and help me and, beyond any and everything–meditation, clonipin, visualizing open space–this stopped my panic from arising beyond my control. So, a long-winded answer, but there you have it.

And PS, I haven’t taken clonipin to fly in several years. I even took the subway a few months ago, something I thought I might never do again in my life. OK, I had to get off every few stops, but still. Step by step, each step with more gentleness toward yourself and your panic.

Wishing you all best, Susan

Find more information about Susan at her website SusanPiver.com


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