Nothing is what it seems – How to manage a Panic Attack

It is the evening before Thanksgiving. I had planned to go to bed early. I wanted to go to a barre class in the morning, despite my recent knee surgery. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do the whole class. I thought it would feel good to at least get some core exercises done. As soon as my head touched my pillow I felt my heart rate going up. Unfortunately I know this feeling really well. Not again!  I loathe the sensation of my heart pounding while I am lying in bed and not on an exercise mat. Deep breaths. In addition to the pounding I now also feel an uncomfortable tightness in my chest. I turn from my side onto my back. Inhale 1-2-3-4, exhale 1-2-3-4-5-6. Instead of falling in a rejuvenating slumber I am having a panic attack.

What if this time there is actually something wrong? I wonder if I’d be able to see the cardiologist before I leave for Italy next week? I am super healthy. The EKG they made last month was perfectly normal. The intensity with which my heart beats in my chest comes and goes. I am doing my best to stay present with my experience. I’ve been here before. I cancel the class I had signed up for, wondering if I am subconsciously worrying about my ability to fully partake in it. This way I really have nothing to be anxious about. So if I don’t have anything to feel anxious about, why am I feeling this way? Maybe there really is something not right. What if it not just felt like I was having a heart attack, but are actually having one? I can always call 911. What if they came and I was unconscious? They wouldn’t be able to get into the house. Maybe I should unlock the front door, so I don’t have to think about that anymore. Oh no, then I’d worry someone may just come into the house. So now what?

I reach for another tool: distraction. I turn on the light. Talking to my husband always helps to calm me. He isn’t there. He is in Dallas, Texas, for work. I call him. Help! Initially I tell him I don’t know why I am feeling anxious. He suggests I get up and make some chamomile tea, to distract myself. By that time my symptoms have worsened and I am shivering; I don’t want to get out of bed. The fact that I am starting to feel worse instead of better while I am talking to him worries me. Maybe there really is something wrong this time. I share what I am thinking. Not just this thought, but all of them. No wonder I am feeling anxious. Speaking my thoughts out loud actually makes me feel a little better.

I tell my husband how frustrated I feel. I tell him I wonder why my thoughts are making me anxious to the point of having a panic attack. It has happened several times recently. Right before my knee surgery I supposed there was an obvious reason to feel anxious. But what about tonight? I wonder if my subconscious is creating this anxiety because I have nothing else to worry about. I mean: I have a roof over my head, a comfortable bed to sleep in, enough to eat, a loving husband, family and friends, I am intelligent and well educated. And yet, there is a part of me that feels like a failure: who am I to teach others how to find inner peace if – apparently – I haven’t found it yet myself? My thoughts are stuck in a closed loop and are causing a short circuit. I need a circuit breaker. I get up to make myself some tea, and sit down to write this blog.

I know several other successful and smart women who also suffer from panic attacks. A panic attack is defined as a sudden period of intense fear that may include palpitations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, numbness, or a feeling that something bad is going to happen. I cannot speak for others what the cause of their panic is, and I am not fully clear on the source of mine yet either. Nevertheless, I have had plenty of opportunity to try out different remedies that have helped manage the intensity, and the duration of, a panic attack. I hope my findings will help those who suffer from the same.

As Einstein wisely said: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Indeed, I have found that telling myself that nothing is wrong with me, while I am having a panic attack and are actually not feeling well at all, doesn’t help. I am simply adding to an overload of thoughts.

What has helped me is this:

  • Distract my attention from my body: look at five different objects and listen for five different sounds, repeat this several times.
  • Get up and walk around.
  • Read a novel or a magazine.
  • Listen to music.
  • Share out loud how I feel.
  • Write down how I feel (like I am doing in this blog).
  • Count my breath: breathe in for four counts, breathe out for six counts. (I know there are suggested breathing techniques that include holding the breath. As much as I love those, they do not work for me during a panic attack.)
  • Splash my face with cold water.
  • Drink some chamomile tea.
  • Inhale calming essential oils such as lavender and Adaptive calming blend*.

Besides offering some helpful tools, there is another reason why I am sharing this. In this day and age of social media, it may seem that everyone else is having the best life without any worries. This in itself may be anxiety provoking at times when you are feeling far from optimal. I am aware that some people think I have the perfect life because I do what I love and I get to travel a lot. Yes, I do have a good life. And no, I am not perfect. Despite the fact that I teach yoga and meditation, that I lead yoga teacher trainings, that I meditate daily (and, yes, sometimes I skip a day), that I go on silent retreats, I do get panic attacks. If I hadn’t shared this you would never have known. And herein lies part of the problem: as long as we think we need to be perfect, we suffer. As long as you think you need to be like me (or rather: what you think is like me), and as long as I think I need to uphold the idea others have of me (or rather: the idea I think they have of me) we are only perpetuating an unsustainable feedback loop. Nothing is what it seems, until we really open our eyes to reality. The more we can honestly see – and share – what is present, the more we will realize that everything constantly changes. Some days we feel good and some days we don’t. Lao Tzu said: “Everything is on its way to becoming its opposite”. I am going back to bed. If I have another panic attack, or at any other moment of discomfort or despair, I will remind myself:  this too shall pass.


* If you are interested getting these essential oils, please find more info here.