Part Four: How a Panic Attack Helped Deepen My Meditation Practice
Like I described in Part One, Two, and Three of this four-part blog series, I never realized that I had experienced anxiety in my life. Instead, I thought that I was just uniquely worried and overwhelmed by things, endured “meltdowns” from time to time, and was debilitatingly afraid of some things.
I didn’t know it could be any other way, I assumed that feeling that way was just who I was.
I wanted to enjoy life and did as best I could. There was a lot that I did fearlessly and happily. I loved to hike and often walked up to the edge of mountaintops with awe and wonder. Yet certain things, sometimes strange things would send me into a full body panic.
I remember getting so afraid of thunderstorms as a kid, my whole body would shake, I’d hide in the basement under blankets, and felt so trapped, like even that was not enough to be protected from the storm.
After becoming a yoga and meditation teacher, and meditating daily myself for years now, I have moved quite far away from that person who believed that being stressed out, worried, and afraid was who she was.
Now if I get too overworked, fragments of those old familiar patterns begin to resurface. While they are no longer my identity, they are simply a reminder that I need to add in more self-care.
I thought that I had moved so far beyond the full-body experience of anxiety that when it showed up strong as ever earlier this year, I was honestly shocked.
In January of 2019, my husband and I joined his family for a cruise. Cruising is his family’s preferred way to vacation, and honestly before I met him I was absolutely terrified of getting on large boats and sailing out in open water, for fear of experiencing a lot of rocking and bad weather. (Remember those debilitating fears I mentioned earlier?)
Yet I thought that by now, after years of daily meditation and experiencing life in a more relaxed manner, I’d not only be fine on the cruise, I’d actually have an amazing and relaxing time like everyone else.
I did, until the third day on a ten day Caribbean cruise.
As we got back onto the boat after the first island, we went up to the Lido deck to grab some dinner, and the scene outside the windows caught my attention and immediately sent an electric jolt through my body – my heart rate sped up instantly, my hands shook severely, my stomach became a squirmy knot intensely gripping. I hunched over trying to hold myself together.
The air was almost white with rain outside the windows. Wind was whipping waves of water onto the dock and shore, washing over the short buildings. A smaller ship next to us was rocking severely side to side. Our ship wasn’t rocking because we were much bigger and still docked, yet I imagined that we would experience something similar once we left and sailed through the ocean throughout the night.
My husband, who knows my fear of boats and weather very well, instantly pulled me away from the crowd that continued to remark on the marvel of the scene and tried to calm me down.
He assured me (for the millionth time) that these boats were built to withstand hurricanes, that we were safe and everything was okay. I heard him, and knew every word he said was true, but I was most afraid of feeling trapped on a rocking boat, and his words weren’t calming that fear down.
The captain got on the intercom and told us that a 100 mile-an-hour wind storm came through, and would be quick. We were going to stay docked until it passed and the weather looked fine afterwards.
You’d think I’d calm down instantly at that news.
I tried to tell myself that I was fine and we were going to have a comfortable smooth night, yet it felt like it was too late – uncontrollable fear still gripped my whole body.
I felt trapped in the physiology of my body. I needed to do something to feel better but I felt stuck in those intense physical feelings. Have you ever felt that way?
I needed to get the hell off the boat but couldn’t. I couldn’t give over to the panic because it felt too huge, too global, too earth-shattering. Chris tried to distract me with a game of cards but my hands were shaking so badly, I couldn’t even pick one up. Then I burst into tears, sobbing with how out-of-control I felt.
We went to our cabin and I began going through all the meditation techniques I could think of – even though the symptoms of anxiety felt so strong and untamable as if they were screaming at me to stay anxious.
I began trying the meditation techniques that have helped me through meltdowns, trying to guide my thoughts into believing that I was okay, but no matter how long I tried it, it didn’t work.
Then Chris asked me what I would do if one of my students were in my shoes and were seeking help.
I imagined that I would try to help them get out of their thoughts and into their body. So I tried a technique that went straight to calming my body, and slowly the panic began to recede. I used a breathing technique and a visualization that I regularly use in my seated practice. After a little while, I was able to fall asleep.
The specific breathing and visualization together stopped me from trying to rationalize away my fear. Instead it bypassed my thoughts and went straight to the place that was truly experiencing the anxiety: my body.
The next morning I was honestly mad at myself for having had this experience; embarrassed. I’m a grown woman – not a scared kid – and I have been practicing meditation for years now and successfully use those techniques on a daily basis to keep my stress and overwhelm from rearing up – why had I still had such a severe reaction? Wasn’t I over this?
When I got home from the cruise, I discovered why.
I learned that I experienced a different type of anxiety than the one I regularly experienced in the past that had led to meltdowns, which was why I needed a different meditation technique to calm myself down.
When I’d experience a meltdown, it seemed to originate in my thoughts. One thought led to another until they worked my whole body up into a state of stress.
The type of anxiety that I experienced on the cruise originated in my body, which reacted even before my thoughts even had a chance to catch up. I was experiencing an amygdala-based anxiety.
The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure located in the emotional brain. It is responsible for keeping us from danger – sounding an alarm of sorts to the whole body through the nervous system when it perceives a threat. It stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as fight, flight, or freeze.
The amygdala is not logical or rational. Instead it functions on instinct, always perceiving the body and its surroundings, ready to send out an emergency survival signal at a moment’s notice. It believes that it knows the best when it comes to our safety and will override any thought that might disagree.
This part of our brain is so important. We want to react when a poisonous snake is ready to strike, we want this little center to switch our bodies onto fight, flight, or freeze when we genuinely need to.
Yet in the issue with anxiety and panic, it sometimes will perceive situations as life threatening that really just aren’t. And as a result, we might go into a full blown panic attack over spilled milk, or in my case over 100 mile-an-hour winds on a large boat about to embark into the open ocean.
The amygdala has an excellent memory. If it ever perceives a situation as dangerous and sends the body into fight, flight, or freeze, it will log that into it’s memory for easy reference, almost like creating a shortcut on a computer – anytime a situation looks or feels remotely similar to the one it remembers, it will jumpstart the survival mode. This becomes an issue when it learns what is dangerous at a young age and carries that memory into adulthood.
At some point in my childhood, my amygdala logged a scenario that felt out of control, overwhelming, claustrophobic, and being trapped as dangerous, perhaps around bad weather.
Being on the cruise in a windstorm with seven days left on the boat recreated that scenario, overruled my rational calming thoughts and sent my physical body into a full state of panic.
Since this little, yet powerful part of our brain believes it knows best, no amount of reasoning, pro and con lists, or just telling it to “let it go already” will actually communicate with it.
In order to get it to call off the emergency system, we must speak the amygdala’s own language. It communicates directly with the autonomic nervous system, so we must stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system – a division of the autonomic nervous system also known as “rest and digest” – which would soothe the nervous system, showing the amygdala that everything is actually okay.
How can you stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system? One way is through a breathing exercise.
This is why when I began going through my meditation techniques of gently guiding my thoughts with tuning into my senses, counting my breath or the many other techniques simply didn’t reach the amygdala. They were all trying to soothe my thoughts. It was like trying to talk to someone in another country by talking out loud.
The moment I used a meditation technique that soothed the nervous system, it was like I found the right phone number for that person, dialed the number and was able to communicate. The amygdala got the signal that everything was actually okay even though I was still in this perceived dangerous situation and it could quiet down.
The cool thing is that each time we communicate with the amygdala and soothe it in the middle of panic, we are giving it an opportunity to rewire that memory. It is like we are able to explain to it in that moment that hey, next time I’m in this situation, remember that I’m fine okay? And we are giving it permission to not react so strongly next time it perceives this similar situation.
Going through this experience deepened my meditation practice.
It showed me just how valuable these tools of yoga and meditation have become in my life.
It showed me the importance of learning and regularly practicing different types of meditation and how they have become tools that I use every single day.
It also reminded me to have compassion for myself through the ups and downs of life. Developing a meditation and yoga practice doesn’t mean that I won’t ever experience anxiety, stress, or panic, it means that I now have the skills to come out the other side of those things in a healthy way.
Meditation and yoga continue to give me power over how I feel, allow me to get to know who I really am underneath daily stress, and give me healthy coping skills that I have with me wherever I go, no matter if I am on a cruise ship with no access to the internet, or if I am lying in my bed in the middle of the night.
Imagine if we all developed healthy tools like breathing techniques, visualizations, meditations that we can use to feel more ourselves everyday, to help us release stress in a positive way, and to help us through the heat of the moment — whether we experience anxiety, depression, everyday stress, disease, overwhelming emotions? How would our relationships evolve if we had these tools to help ourselves through stress, and then be more emotionally available for others? What would our lives look like if we could extend a bit more compassion to ourselves each day?