Panic—a sudden overpowering terror, often affecting many
people at once. Originating from the Greek God Pan, the god of shepherds of the
mountain wilds of Arkadia, who often amused himself by coming upon a lonely
traveler and causing fear in his half man half goat appearance.
American Heritage College Dictionary
Many people are feeling a sense of real panic and anxiety
these days because of the economy, global terrorism, and the health of our
environment. It doesn’t help either to have a fearmongering media mindlessly
posting updates every half hour with little context.
Stress is part of our life and a very good part of our life,
as it produces challenge and demands us to think, feel, change behavior, act
and evolve. (And, believe me, crises can be a great teacher.) But if we do not
know how stress works or how to regulate our responses to it, it can begin to
overwhelm us. Anxiety and panic are actual signals that tell us that our
body/brain is struggling with the stress levels and demanding some action.
But if stress is not released and we live in a constant
state of low level fear and anxiety, our bodies begin to break down. They can’t
stay in a state of hyper readiness to act 24 hours a day. Our bodies need to
act on perceived or felt fears and then recover.
Panic attacks often develop out of chronic anxiety. These
attacks seemingly come out of nowhere and produce psychological states of
heightened fear, dread, and a sense of feeling out of control. Our body first
gives us signals of dis-ease: nausea, cold sweats, heart palpitations, headaches, andmost of all shortness of breath. It feels we are in a nightmare; only it’s in the middle of the day and we’re not dreaming.
I used to dismiss the despair and terror people said they
experienced when suffering a panic attack. When they expressed their irrational
fears, I’d say to myself: don’t they realize this is only in their
All it takes is one episode and it becomes very clear why
panic can strike us with such dread. Of course, it is in our minds, and that is
precisely why anxiety and panic, left misunderstood or not treated, can affect
our long-term health as well as the health of our families and society as well.
I’ve had mild panic attacks while traveling alone for some
time. But it wasn’t until I nearly drowned nine years ago that I really
understood how deadly a panic attack can be. Most drowning deaths are of course
set off by panic. On land, the shortness of breath may not harm us for long,
but in the water, it can kill us.
For me, a long distance swimmer, the experience was more
than a lesson in how panic shuts down the body/brain’s ability to respond to
stress, it also gave me insight into how not understanding how the emotion and
ego work can ironically prevent our organic survival instincts from working.
Here’s what happened. I’d just returned from a long flight
from South Africa, exhausted, emotionally overwhelmed, and struggling with a
nasal infection. But, eager to enjoy a beautiful lake swim and live up to my
athletic reputation, I joined two friends for a swim across a mile long lake in
New Hampshire on a chilly, dreary summer afternoon. (Mistake one.)
On the leg back across the lake I began to experience
shortness of breath and chills. I let my pals swim on but these conditions
worsened and I couldn’t get enough breath to keep any pace at all. Angry with
myself, my jock ego and trained athlete-self tried to push on. It worsened. I
looked around and my friends were too far away for me to call out for some
help, (actually, ashamed of my weakness, I told myself there was no way I was
going to call out for help). (Mistake two.) I dog-paddled trying to get some
air, but could only feel waves of fatigue beginning to pull the life out of my
arms and legs. Could I be drowning, I thought, incredulously? Me?! A
swimmer? My rational mind was furious
trying to understand the logic and the injustice of what was happening. But
I can swim two miles in Lake Michigan alone in 68 degree water? Was this some
divine joke, some Job-like test? (Mistake
three—ego feeling it as an affront rather than a crisis.)
What saved me?
It certainly wasn’t my rational mind.
In the moment following my outburst of rage, I began to
experience what many who have come close to death describe as the miraculous
sensation of psychological surrender. You’re dying and instead of going down
screaming and kicking, as I was, a profound shift occurs. How it happens or why,
is the subject of mystical poetry and now neuroscience. I have no answer. But to my surprise, I felt a profound relief. My life was over and it was perfectly fine.
And just as I had that feeling of joy and relief, the image came to me of floating in a lake in front of my grandparent’s cottage; it was a warm sunny day, the water soft and , my sister was floating next to me and my mother was standing with her hands under hands under my spine as well as under my sister’s as she whispered, “just
relax, relax, and breath and when you feel yourself sinking, just gently move
your arms and legs.” My mother’s lessons when I was five on how to float.
Where did this memory come from? My muscles? My frontal
cortex? My unconscious? Or was it a combination of them all integrating to find
the best response?
The point of course is that it came just in time to save me.
Immediately, then, I turned over, and began to do what my mother had taught me
44 years before: to focus on my breath.
Breath is of course the key to dealing with panic. It
naturally focuses the mind on the sensations of the body as it takes in oxygen
and nourishes the blood. The longer one can stay focused on the breath, the
quicker the mind will let go of the escalating feelings of fear. Ten seconds
and it can be over. In subsequent attacks I’ve had, on planes and other places,
I simply close my eyes and follow my breath all the way to its completion, fill
up again, and repeat. I keep telling myself, “breathe, just breathe.”
What’s key, is to not only breathe but to feel yourself breathing, that’s what shifts the mind off the fear. The panic subsides because the brain is now focused another
pattern: the sensations of the lungs, the diaphragm dropping, the tingling of energy and oxygen moving through the flesh. The yoga of survival, I call it.