Friday, July 10, 2009

Overcoming Panic Attacks

CAUTION: This article contains some not so pleasant details. Use your discretion in reading it.

I vaguely knew what a panic attack was, when I had one back in 2007, August. Over the month of July, I had been worrying a lot about my future. Things were not working out well with my current advisor. I was looking at my options: Quit department, change department, change advisor same department, quit university, quit Phd. Different people were giving me different opinions and that was adding to my worries. My big worry was funding, will I get funded next year or not? This worry was literally eating me up.
It started as a pain in my chest region, I wasn't sure why that pain was there because I was healthy otherwise. But the pain seemed to be slowly growing over the month of July.
One fine night in August 2007, I was biking back from my department through the school to my home. At some point I became aware that I was becoming short of breath. I stopped riding, got off my bike and went to the side of the road. Then it happened.
My heart started beating fast and soon it was pounding hard in my body, I had hot shivers go through my body and I was having a hard time standing. It felt like I was having a heart attack.
I took a lot of deep breaths and sat down on the curb till I could muster courage to get up and ride the bike back home. That night I had two more panic attacks and it was worse.
I knew two things about what was going on:
a) Whenever it happened, I was short of breath,and I felt like I was heart attack. I reasoned that I was too young to have a heart attack.
b) As if it were not enough that I had a heart pounding hard in my chest, my mind also joined the game and started zipping between places at an insane speed.. Infact I thought that at that insane pace, my mind was going out of control, which could only mean that I was going insane!

Dark night of the soul
That night, through the panic attacks, I prayed beside my mind.. My mind was having its own gibberish thoughts at insane speed, but I was also able to use the mind in between to pray to God. God, what's going on, what's happening.. My heart is pounding, I feel like I am going insane, help me. Please help me...I was totally frightened and overwhelmed by all the drama happening within my body and mind. It is the most frightening and intense experience I have ever had in my life.
From my senior high school years (when I started practicing Shavasana), I knew that the mind-body connect was definitely real. Relax the mind, and that relaxes the body and conversely; relax the body and the mind will become more relaxed too.
At this point at 3 am in the morning, once my panic attack subsided, I had only one option:
Do as many rounds of Shavasana as possible to fully relax the body and hope that the mind would calm down enough for a night's sleep.
I had trouble going through the Shavasana suggestions, since you need to atleast be able to focus the mind and say, 'Relax toe', but my mind was just zapping away carrying me with it.
I would try again and again.. Before I knew it, I would be at the toes again, working my way up.
Finally, after about an hour and many half-rounds of Shavasana, I was able to work my way from the toe to the head in one round.. This was an indication that my mind had calmed down..
I fell asleep while I was doing another of these relaxation rounds...

Daybreak and acceptance
I hardly managed three hours of sleep that night.. And I woke up many times during those 3 hours to observe my mind chattering away.. I had to figure out what was going on.
I googled my symptoms and lo and behold, I figured I was having panic attacks. Thank God, in this day and age, we live just one click away from instant answers.
I read that once you have a panic attack, it's very likely that you can have a few more, since you just need to get worried that you will have another panic attack and that will trigger one.
Panic attacks get perpetuated by panicking!! The way out? Stop panicking... Which is not at all easy, with a mind that goes out of control during panic attacks. I remember walking to Safeway that day, and there was this tall guy at the corner of the building, smoking weed and talking to himself. Looking at him brought out my fear of the insanity that I was going through the night and this set my heart pounding faster, because I was worrying about that!
I read about some strategies to reduce the risk of another panic attack.
The first thing I needed to do was cut out all of my conscious worrying that I did.
I had a copy of 'Conversations with God' by Neale Donald Walsch. I browsed through it and came across this phrase in the book, 'What you resist, persists'. I decided to adopt the attitude of 'acceptance'. Let me just accept my situation, however bad it may seem. Let me let go of my worries. Coupled with these perspectives, I relaxed my body as much as I could during the day, so that my night would be a little more peaceful.
The next night wasn't as intense but I still did have a panic attack. I did my Shavasana rounds and managed to catch some sleep.
That whole week, all I did during the day, was just walk around the campus, enjoy the scenery, relax, read a book, pray to God, and just accepting my situation and being grateful that I am alive: Things I had been postponing due to my worrying habit. And during the night, I relaxed my body as much as I could through Shavasanas.
Every night got better than the previous one.. My panic attacks stopped after 3 days, but I would still be short of breath and my heart would start racing all of a sudden frequently, but the thoughts in my mind started mellowing down, which was a great relief for me.
I continued my Shavasana routine every night for the next one month, and thankfully, I was able to put the Panic attacks behind me and get a new perspective on life: 'Nothing, really, nothing, is worth my peace of mind'.


sarbjeet singh said...

I think it is not panic attacks.It is a process of your soul purification.Do not interfere in it.Only sea and watch the process like meditation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article, it was an inspiration. In December last year, after a few weeks of increasing stress and anxiety, I had a terrible panic attack - feelings of unreality, a sensation of primal dread and fear coursing through my body, feeling as though I'm loosing my mind, heart racing, going deaf, breathlessness. I've had it before, but I was able to snap out of it before it enveloped me - this time it caught me off-guard and left me in a state of intense anxiety, pensive unreality and fear for nearly a month, alongside a creeping sense of deep depression. I felt as though I was in a dark void. I thought I was dying and loosing my mind - the intense worry caused me to obsess about my health, state of mind and mortality. It was so intense that I had to take a month off of work and see a therapist.

It was only at a certain point did I truly realise that I was perpetuating the anxiety-panic cycle by my self-obsessed focus. Have I lost control? Am I crazy, insane or psychotic? Am I dying? Do I have an underlaying disease? Am I being punished? Is this my experience for the rest of my life? I became slightly agoraphobic and irrationally fearful. Even seeing the ongoing events in Syria on the television would produce states of hopelessness and waves of anxiety. I would cry every night. I couldn't sleep or rest from the prevaling condition because I would have intense, lucid nightmares and bizzare dreams. This was such an intense shift into a state of fear because prior to the buildup to this attack, I was a confident and focussed individual.

My therapist summed it up quite nicely which provided the first insight into escaping this personal hell - "People who are truly insane or psychotic don't know it". It was clear that I wasn't insane. I was simply overwhelmed with the fear of going insane. Big difference. I researched my condition from a number of perspectives - ranging from clinical to esoteric. I even discovered that what is described as a "kundalini awakening" in yoga was in fact identical to the symptoms I was experiencing.

I then began to re-evaluate my life and take a good look at what led me to this, and decided to face my fears. I also realised that it was necessary for my own growth, which transformed the experience into a disguised blessing.

I'm utterly convinced that panic attacks forcibly switch back on that interior light. It just depends how we react to it and handle it. For me, it was a huge wake-up call.