How I used mindfulness and meditation to overcome severe panic disorder
-From a fellow student
I am a senior at Connecticut College and I deal with anxiety on a daily basis. My first panic attack occurred towards the end of the summer after my sophomore year. It was incredibly terrifying — the heart palpitations, the trouble breathing, the dizziness and headaches, the sweating, weakness at the knees, the inability to think rationally, etc. I continued to have multiple violent panic attacks a day all throughout my junior year. I was ashamed of my condition and I didn’t tell anyone about what I was going through or get help until after getting through my entire first semester, finishing with a 1.7 GPA. I understand as much as anyone how debilitating and terrifying panic attacks really are. But entering the second semester of my senior year, I have thus far gotten my best grades ever at college, I am healthy, I am mostly happy, and I haven’t had a full blown panic attack in weeks, possibly months (depending on what you consider a “full blown panic attack”). Mindfulness and meditation practices have played a significant role in my recovery, and I am writing this hoping that I can help even just one other person who is finding him or herself going through a similar condition. I’ll touch on mindfulness and meditation, then throw in a few other tips that have worked for me.
If you’re reading this then I’m sure you know how hard normal breathing can be when dealing with chronic anxiety. Meditation places a large emphasis on focusing on the breath, from when it enters your body to when it leaves. Another major part of the meditation that I practice is mindfulness, which is maintaining an open and empty mind, letting thoughts peacefully come and go, and most importantly, living in the present moment. As someone who finds breathing uncomfortable from time to time, you can still peacefully meditate properly while having trouble breathing. Panic attacks are brought on, at least for me, by overthinking and catastrophizing non-threatening situations, so a good first step in reducing panic attacks is to cut off these harmful thoughts. When you meditate, although it may be uncomfortable, focus on the breath. Thoughts will enter your head; don’t analyze them and don’t make a big deal out of them, just let them come and go. Immediately go back to focusing on the breath. Breath focus helps to cut off your DMN (default mode network), which is your constant involuntary stream of thoughts that keeps reminding you of stressors such as past failures or future obligations. Anxiety is usually the result of an extremely busy mind, so if you’re being overwhelmed by your thoughts close your eyes, sit still, and focus on breathing for a few minutes. When you get trapped within your own mind and want out, meditation lets you make peace with your thoughts so that you can comfortably settle in to your own mind.
Scientific studies have shown that meditation activates the “relaxation response,” which is the exact physiological opposite of the stress response. The stress response is activation of the sympathetic nervous system and is what causes the increased heart rate, dizziness, increased respiration, and basically all the other extremely uncomfortable sensations experienced during panic attacks. The relaxation response on the other hand promotes a lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, and muscle relaxation. There’s a reason that Buddhist monks always look so calm!
Mindfulness is closely associated with meditation and can be practiced at any time, whether you’re walking to class, taking a test, or working out. The way I see it, mindfulness is like “meditation on-the-go.” A mindful person lives from moment to moment, not ruminating on the past nor worrying about the future. It requires that you keep an open mind, and your mind can’t be open if it’s full. Pull your focus and perception from inside your head to outside your head, because there’s a lot more interesting stuff on the outside! I especially like to practice mindfulness while walking outdoors and during sports practice. Being mindful while walking outside allows me to appreciate the beauty of trees and animals and natural colors. Ever since practicing mindfulness, I fell in love with the different colors of a sunset or sunrise. During sports practice, being mindful has helped me to shift my focus from the pain associated with exercising to both the physical and mental sensations of self improvement. Practicing mindfulness changes your perception of whatever situation you apply it to, and persistent mindfulness practice will eventually change your thought patterns and overall mindset, which for me has been the key to overcoming and reducing my panic attacks.
Changing my baseline mindset and overall worldview has been the single most significant life change in overcoming panic disorder. Not SSRIs or therapy. Dedicated mindfulness practice will eventually change your thinking patterns for the better, but you have to be persistent and trust the process. Thanks to neuroplasticity, frequently used thought patterns will be reinforced by strengthening of neuronal synapses while lesser used thought patterns will wither away as the synapses responsible for them receive less and less stimulation. In other words, you can etch desirable patterns of thinking and behavior into your brain, but it requires persistence. I used to spend all day looking at my phone and laying in bed, but now I spend most of my time reading, hanging out with friends, and exercising. I also eat healthy and write about things important or interesting to me. I am not the pinnacle of happiness or success, but I am 1000 times better off than I was only a year ago because I realized that how you think, how you spend your time, how you eat, etc. are all so much more important for living a healthy and happy life than I once thought. So my advice for people struggling with panic attacks and anxiety: meditate a few minutes per day, focus on living in the moment, and choose a life style that you are happy with. And trust me, I know how hard change can really be. But it’s possible, and most importantly, the power to change your life lies exclusively in your own hands.