Anxious about Anxiety – Thoughts on Panic Attacks
I had my first panic attack back in 2008. I was getting ready to move from Spain back to Asia; time was running out and there still seemed to be a million and one things to do. The day in question had been a frustrating one; I’d spent most of it trying to get a medical done which was necessary for my visa for my new job. Without boring you with the details, my efforts had not proved fruitful and had left me feeling somewhat anxious. I’d gone to the gym for a swim to calm myself down, but as I was showering and getting ready to go home the weight of my to-do list reclaimed its place on my shoulders. I felt like I was going to cry, and in hindsight maybe I should have just done that. As I bustled out of the gym doors to walk home the tension mounted in my chest; I stuffed the anxiety back down in response. I headed homewards, noticing something weird was happening with my breath – it was like I couldn’t breathe a long enough breath, and seemed to be taking too many short ones, more and more short breaths…. By the time I walked in through the front door I was hyperventilating – my flat mate rushed over to see if I was ok, telling me she hadn’t realized I had asthma – I don’t, was the response I was later able to tell her.
If I’m honest, I’m not even sure when I realized that this had been a panic attack. It didn’t happen again for maybe a couple of years. Then when work stress got bad, and insomnia kicked in so did the panic attacks. There’s nothing like holding onto your kitchen worktop hyperventilating as a sign to let you know that’s something’s got to change – that change for me was quitting my management job to do yoga teacher training. It was only more recently though that I actually started to ponder the triggers for these attacks in an attempt to try and find a solution to stop a full-on attack from manifesting.
A while back I did some sessions of HSE (Human Software Engineering) as a case study for a therapist. Whilst the issue we used as a basis for the sessions was not my panic attacks, I later realized that the techniques we had used together could be applied to them. In the HSE sessions I learnt to see an issue as a cyclone with an eye in the middle whirling around. You have two choices – you can either avoid said cyclone, or choose to step into it and fully feel whatever is up for you. Feeling the issue or emotion fully, rather than denying it, creates the space for you to ride through it, so that rather than carrying it with you, you are able to let it go. Although I was already using the technique of active feet we use in Forrest Yoga to ground me when I felt an anxiety attack starting to brew, I realized that the technique I had used in HSE was an equally valuable tool. The next time I caught myself moving into “panic mode” I paid more attention to what was actually causing the panic, then rather than pushing that emotion back down, as I had always done prior, I acknowledged it and allowed myself to feel it fully. The result was, as in my sessions, the emotion seemed to pass through and the feelings of anxiety subsided.
What’s interesting though, is that on another occasion this technique didn’t seem to work, nor the active feet to ground me. I felt so consumed by the emotion that I did actually have a full attack. Afterwards I felt exhausted – I realized that this was in part from having hyperventilated, but also was a result of catharsis – that perhaps on this occasion having the attack was the only way I could fully feel the emotion and that I had needed to do this in order to process it and let it pass.
At first I was left unsure as to whether there is a definitive conclusion that can be drawn from these musings – do I really want to be having a full blown panic attack in order to admit and fully feel what is going on for me? Honestly and truthfully – most probably not! What I will conclude though is that it is important to find tools that help us to connect to being truly in feeling. For me this is why I love the practices of Forrest and Yin Yoga and why this is what I teach – they are practices that ultimately teach us how to move into feeling and how to sit with what whatever is up for us at that time. These styles of yoga plus a meditation practice are definitely the pillars of support for me when working with keeping stress under control.
***Forrest Yoga Active feet - press through the ball and heel of the foot, pull up the foot arch, and lift and spread your toes. Connects you with the earth, grounds you, and turns on the leg muscles to connect you with the rest of your body!