I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time researching material on overcoming panic disorder. Like many people prone to anxiety, I have a tendency to attempt to try to over-think my way out of problems. There’s endless amounts of YouTube videos, books, websites, and forum posts explaining different techniques for what to do when the dread starts to take hold, and the truth is none of it really made much of a difference for me.
The one overwhelming theme when you get to the core of almost all the teachings is that of acceptance. They may describe it as allowing, surrendering, letting go, or many other words for the same concept. Claire Weekes, author of Hope and Help for Your Nerves, urges you to ‘float through your anxiety.’ Eckhart Tolle, spiritual guru and author of ‘The Power of Now‘ speaks of hearing the words ‘resist nothing‘ on his awakening experience. The list goes on, and the advice makes perfect sense. After all, panic disorder is a negative feedback loop, with negative emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations feeding and escalating off one another.
Then why do I find it so damn hard to put this into practice in the moment it’s needed? Panic is an involuntary response of the mind and nervous system to a mistaken danger, and my immediate involuntary response is that of fear, and an overwhelming urge to fight, resist, escape! If it was this easy to control voluntary responses, why not just decide not to have the panic response in the first place?!
This is where, after years of trying, some of my recent meditation learnings have come in helpful. Upon embarking on a somewhat serious meditation practice, one of the first things I’ve learned is about setting intentions. When we start, our minds don’t want to focus or follow the breath. They resist, make noise, and look for more interesting or exciting stimuli. But we set an intention to try to focus on the breath, to continuously re-engage our focus, and gradually the mind starts to obey.
It might seem obvious to some, but for me I just couldn’t grasp how to ‘let go’, or ’embrace the fear’ when I was in the grips of a full blown panic attack. Of course, I’m still struggling with this, but something clicked with me when I realised that by just setting a clear and conscious intention, you can gradually start to retrain some of your involuntary reactions, and all is not hopeless.
A good way I’ve found to practice this is by creating less intense situations in which to practice the art of acceptance. This could be through purposely creating minor panic inducing situations for yourself and trying to explore the fear. It could be by using a technique in which you deliberately emulate some of the physical symptoms of panic, such as hyper ventilation, and just allow yourself to feel the uncomfortable feelings with no resistance. This is a technique known clinically as interoceptive exposure therapy.
For me, I’ve found a variety of techniques to be helpful. One, for example, is using cold showers as a way of completely accepting the discomfort of the moment, and training myself not to react negatively to the trigger. Training my brain through meditation is also extremely helpful in teaching me to accept whatever comes up and be completely accepting of it. I also try to create a variety of panic triggers for myself which are uncomfortable but manageable, and will try to employ the techniques in those situations.
The concept is that, by repeatedly setting these intentions and practicing in lower pressure scenarios, when you do come to face the bigger fears and stronger panic triggers, you will be know exactly how acceptance should feel and will be very well equipped to handle the situation. Practice, trust and repetition is the key!