Tag Archives: panic

Panic, breath and meditation

I’d been aware of the theory that panic and breath-orientated meditation doesn’t always go well, but until recently, I’d never encountered it. The experience of what was probably bronchitis coupled with several days of intense panic from stressful things, did things to my body. I found that so long as I wasn’t thinking about my breath, I was fine, but if I became aware of it, I couldn’t do it. Cue gasping frantically.

This was especially bad on the edge of sleep, because there aren’t many things a person can do with their brain. At that point, not being aware of my body proved very hard indeed, and the panicked bouts of fighting to breathe, and fighting to convince my body that it could breathe, were many. It made me realise how much my meditation practice is underpinned by breathwork. I had no real tools to deal with a situation where I needed to focus my mind on something other than my breath. However, necessity is a great teacher.

What I discovered is that I can go from cold, straight into a visualisation or pathworking. I have to plan it carefully in advance, and to make the leap straight into a deep meditative state, the subject matter has to be emotionally engaging. And then, it’s like making an enormous, perilous jump, but I managed it repeatedly. An arrowshot of intent and concentration, taking the mind away from the body so that the body could keep on with the breathing, untroubled.

I also learned that this kind of trick can be pulled when sharp and clever, but that an exhausted, sleep deprived mind can’t do it, and at that point, valerian is the better answer, or anything else you might use to knock yourself out of a night.

I’ve never felt so at odds with myself as I did during the week of not being able to think about breathing. Body and mind were functioning as two distinct systems, very much at odds with each other. It was an unnerving experience in all kinds of ways, and I hope never to have it again. It’s another example of how you can’t use meditation as a quick fix – this only worked for me because I have a long history of working with visualisation and had a skill set to draw on. Quite possibly this also went wrong for me because I have a long history of breathwork.

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Trigger anxieties

No one wants to be triggered. No one wants a panic attack, or a flashback, or any of the revisiting of fear and pain a trigger can bring. Alongside this, being triggered can become a fearful thing too, because of how other people react to it. This may well not be an exhaustive list.

Fear of being mocked, ridiculed and humiliated. Special Snowflake. Drama Queen. Attention seeker.

Fear that others will see you as weak, lacking in self control, over-reacting or unreasonable.

Fear of your triggering being used to prove some point – that you are useless, incapable, unreliable, attention seeking, fuss making… and thus shouldn’t be allowed something. As though what happens when you are triggered is a fair measure of you as a person.

Fear that the panic will be a justification to do something to you – remove power, jobs, titles, autonomy, children, opportunities.

Fear that if you talk to someone about having been triggered they will be hostile. Fear that they will react as though you are accusing them of something horrible even if you’re just asking for help. Fear of finding you can’t trust someone you thought you could trust, that they resent being asked to walk on eggshells. It’s hard to talk about this without making people uncomfortable. If you have poor self esteem, fear of making other people uncomfortable may seem more important than not being triggered by them. Fear of damaging relationships may make it tempting not to even say there’s a problem. Fear of the anger of the person who is cross with you because you made a fuss about being triggered.

None of these are hypothetical scenarios. I’ve either seen them happening or experienced them first hand. I think a lot of it comes from a lack of understanding about what triggering means. This is not helped by a mainstream media prone to ridiculing things like trigger warnings. There are a lot of people out there suffering from trauma. We can choose to add to that, or we can choose to try and help each other as best we can.


In the aftermath of anxiety

A panic attack can be a rather self announcing thing. It has inherent drama, so it can be possible for people not experiencing the panic to tell that something is going on. However, the aftermath of a panic attack is also a difficult time, and it is far harder to see what’s going on then, so I thought it might be a useful thing for me to talk about.

The physical symptoms can persist. Raised heart rate, tight chest, difficulty breathing – these things can go on for hours, even days after a big panic attack. It feels awful and can lead to the fear that something has gone wrong at a bodily level. I’ve never been clear how you’re supposed to tell between panic and heart attack warning signs. Those of us who suffer panic are told to ignore what others are told to take seriously.

There can be a huge emotional backlash. It invariably leaves me feeling like I’m stupid, irrational and I’m embarrassed by my loss of control. I hate not being able to control what I’m doing. I get anxious that people will not take me seriously, or will think it’s a stunt, a bid for attention, an attempt at emotional blackmail. Often as a consequence I will become withdrawn afterwards, especially when I don’t know how people are responding to me.

Once panic has been triggered, it is easier to re-panic me. This can lead to incredibly vicious cycles where it gets ever harder to stop panicking. Without calm and respite, panic can get seriously out of control.

Exhaustion is a common part of the backlash. Emotional and bodily exhaustion can be severe and can last for days. The desire to just down tools and go to bed is huge. When things are really bad, a massive panic attack can result in the no energy, not coping outcome of a big round of depression.

If you are dealing with a person who suffers from panic, then the best way to find out how to help them is to ask. On the whole, taking people seriously and treating them kindly makes a lot of odds. However, as panic is often related to abuse experiences, make sure that what you do to help doesn’t seem controlling, doesn’t give the sufferer the feeling that they are so useless they can’t take care of themselves, doesn’t patronise or demean them. Those of us who are ok with being touched can be significantly soothed through long hugs, but never hug without asking. Unsolicited body contact can be a panic trigger. Bring drinks, reduce noise, remove threats, talk calmly, give space and time.

Triggers are tricky things. Someone else’s triggers may make no sense to you, and you may feel that the time it takes them to recover is unreasonable. This is because it isn’t your trigger, or your history, or your body, and it is important to bear that in mind when dealing with someone in distress.


The mechanics of panic

I have recently learned several things about the mechanics of panic, and thought I would share as they might be useful to others.

Fight or flight reactions are part of how we are wired up, and come from our entirely evolutionary history. Stressful situations get our bodies gearing up to fight or flight – for me it’s pretty much entirely a flight impulse. Suppressing those impulses to stay in a situation that does not feel safe, increases my risk of a panic attack. I am suspicious that panic attacks may to a very large degree be the result of not acting on my flight impulses.

If I am emotionally distressed, my automatic response is to try and hide that – the reasons are many, but the impact is that it puts extra stress on my body when my body is already in a state of distress. Physically shutting down my reactions and allowing no space for them in order to stay in a situation that I find distressing, and seem calm and tolerable to anyone distressing me, is perhaps not the cleverest way to go.

If I don’t deal with what’s actually happening, by leaving, by protecting myself, or by allowing my own emotional responses, things get worse for me. Massively worse. I’m starting to see a panic attack as a kind of violence, a reaction to what is suppressed from a body that simply cannot handle any more suppression. This is a backlash, I cannot deal with it or control it by trying to manage the symptoms. To avoid panic attacks, I need to look harder at what I do when I am distressed, or when my urge is to run away. Probably I need to start letting myself run away, or howl when I need to.

My priority has been to minimise the effect of my panic attacks on other people. To avoid being a nuisance. I pay for this. I pay for it in the shutting down of my overloaded body, and the days of feeling battered and dislocated that follow. Doing differently may make me very difficult to deal with, for other people. I may not be socially viable. I may be better off being more of a hermit, and more able to breathe, and concentrating on the spaces where I do feel safe.


Observations on breaking

I am fascinated by the limits of my mind and body and what happens when I get there. Because I am a bit shattered, my concentration is shot and I’m having trouble holding clear lines of thought. Forgive me if this is a less coherent post than usual.

Aspect one is pain, of which I have a lot just now. I know why, some if it will improve in the next few days, which may help sort the rest. But, yesterday, I hit the kind of pain levels that mess with my brain. I can tune out small pain, cuts, blisters, etc barely register. It’s funny because I haven’t lost my thinking to pain this way since the early stages of labour. Watching my mind fragment, my lines of thought disintegrate. Today is a bit better, but blogging is hard work. I’m stopping more to pick up my threads. The words are not flowing.

Aspect two is panic. I’ve spent years with fear. I’m better than I was in that I no longer start every day waking into a full blown panic attack, but small panic bursts are still a daily occurrence. It doesn’t help that post remains a panic trigger. I’m working on that. Something for another day, perhaps. So the adrenaline fear spike is part of my inner landscape. Was that a mixed metaphor? Not sure, keep pedalling… fear is part of what I get. Only I seem to have broken the adrenaline side, and this may not be a good thing. Fear, since yesterday, has been arriving more like a slap in the face with a wet sock. I experience something, but not what I normally get, and it doesn’t feel like healing because the fear is still there. Early days, and only a suspicion that you can burn out an adrenal system. No insight really.

So on a normal day, my sense of self owes a lot to my emotional responses. How I feel about things is part of what makes me recognisably me. That’s not working properly. The pain and fear responses are… weird. I know I’ve been hit by a bout of depression – that at least is behaving in a normal way, unfortunately, ‘normal’ for depression tends to include a deadening of self in the first place.

The other key thing for me is that normally I have a very clear and coherent flow of thoughts. The inside of my head is normally like narration in a book in terms of coherence and clarity. This is a defining feature of my sense of self. I usually know exactly what I am thinking and why, and I think my way through and round everything I encounter. This is intrinsic to my sense of self. The absence of it is disconcerting. Wandering about with no coherence, not feeling like someone I recognise. Disorientated, lost. Not knowing if it stays like this or how things go from here. Needing to work, needing to be functional, and everything is so much more difficult than it ought to be.

Odd, finding that my identity was made of a few flashes of brain chemistry and my ability to hold an inner monologue. No idea who I am without that, and surprised to realise how fragile and barely real I was all along, and how easily that sense of self falls apart.


Barefoot lessons

I had another bout of barefoot wandering at the weekend, along the beach at Scarborough, and onwards. It made me realise a thing. I’ve been tuning out pain for years now. If I let myself be aware of it, there is pretty much constant bodily pain. Far less of it than there used to be, but still enough to be a nuisance. I’ve been learning to balance more between tuning out the pain in order to get stuff done, and letting myself be aware of it in order to manage it better and heal.

If I choose, I can walk on anything. I’ve not tested that, and I’m not interested in broken glass, hot embers or anything of that ilk, but I can go barefoot over any surface that won’t cut or burn me, and that’s plenty good enough. I can do it by choosing to do it.

Then, because walking tends to get my brain pottering along, I started wondering if I could take the same approach to other things. I’m a strong willed person. For years, I used that to keep going normally despite suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. I‘ve used it for the pain. I have also used it to simply not roll over and accept defeat during sorely trying times. Now I sleep enough, my pain levels are down, and I’ve faced down a few allegedly impossible challenges.

Can I choose not to be afraid?

I suffer from anxiety as a medical condition. This goes beyond normal, functional fear, to something less rational that seriously impacts on my quality of life at times. That which has happened to me has left me fearful, and expecting the worst. I jump at shadows and see the potential for disaster in everything around me. If I let it take over, I’d be unable to do anything. The impact on my body is immediate, deeply physical and bloody irritating. I’m tired of being afraid.

I can choose to simply accept that yes, the world probably is going to dish me plenty more shit before it’s done with me. But not all the time. There’s plenty of good stuff, too. Thus far I have managed to endure, overcome, and otherwise not be destroyed by the crap in my life. It may be therefore fair to assume, given just how serious some of that was, that actually I probably can find my way through whatever comes. I have will. I have determination. If I refuse to be defeated by fear then it’s going to have a hard time stopping me.

There is that other trick, the one remembered through walking shoeless. I can choose not to feel it. When my body kicks off with panic responses, I can try treating that the same way I would a dose of sudden pain. I know how to push it away. I just have to use the tools already at my disposal.

I can walk barefoot on gravel.

I can walk through the fear.