Meditation made me panic
I remember when I first stepped inside an incense-filled studio in Battersea to try an 8-week mindfulness course, aged 23. Soft, earthy textures filled my eyes as I adjusted to the dimly-lit space.
People were arriving quietly, taking off their shoes, putting coats and bags down and finding a cushion or chair to sit on.
I found a spare cushion somewhere near the middle-back of the room - near the door, of course.
If my nerves weren’t already frazzled, the atmosphere probably would’ve made me feel sleepy and relaxed; instead, I felt tingling dread.
Drew, the meditation teacher, entered the room and softly introduced himself, what the course would entail and what we’d be doing that evening. We were asked to go around and briefly introduce ourselves too. Talking in big groups of strangers - shit! I managed to get my name out and maybe a sentence about studying a masters. No other personal information, thanks. Especially nothing about the constant anxiety, almost-daily panic attacks, claustrophobia and hypochondria I was experiencing at that point in my life.
After about 20-30 minutes of group introductions and guidance from Drew, he advised us to get comfortable - finding an alert, but relaxed posture - to settle into our first ‘formal’ meditation practice together.
Sitting still, I noticed my body feeling on edge. Really on edge. I fidgeted.
He directed us to notice our breathing… where we could feel it…
My mind raced, “Oh my god, my breathing is really shallow. My heart is beating out of my chest. I’m shaking… I can’t stay in here…”
I tried with all my might to fight the rising panic. Thoughts filled my mind about how I was going to have a heart attack right there and then, and no one would be able to help. I then also felt desperate frustration that it was happening again.
Drew continued to ask us to stay focused on the breathing… but I had already snapped.
I got up as quietly as possible and darted for the door, hoping everyone wouldn’t notice and make it worse. I grabbed my bag and went straight outside to get some cold air. My heart was going nuts. I just couldn’t believe that it could beat this fast and hard without something being very wrong (a classic hypochondria thought).
I sat down, not knowing what to do. Thoughts about calling an ambulance again went through my mind, but I resisted. After a minute, I took some diazepam (anxiety medication) and paced nervously until my body started to calm down.
The very request to calmly follow my breath had made my hypochondriac mind freak out and create catastrophic stories. “Great, meditation makes me panic. This will never work.”
I didn't realise back then it wasn't meditation making me panic, but suppressed feelings I'd never fully processed.
I eventually went back inside, feeling safer that the medication was keeping my anxiety at bay for now. I joined the final half of the session, but was feeling defeated, isolated and hopeless. I really thought meditation could be the answer, after everything I’d read.
It took a lot of willpower and self-encouragement to return the following week, and the next, and next. Each week, I felt rising panic, and had to leave the room for a while. But one week, I remember quite a breakthrough group discussion. It was the most honest display of mental health challenges between strangers I’d ever been a part of up until that point in my life.
For several years, I felt completely alone in my anxiety - mainly because I was convinced it was more than just anxiety but something physically wrong with me. I hadn’t really heard anyone openly admit to strangers that they had anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc. but here they all were, laying their cards out with no shame. I eventually offered up my ‘problems’ to the group and felt a strong catharsis (more so than any one-to-one counselling).
Suddenly, I wasn’t alone or 'wrong'. It didn’t diminish my anxiety altogether, but it certainly eradicated my hopelessness and sense of separation, which kick-started a journey into exploring this whole meditation business much more deeply.
So, there you have it. The outwardly-relaxed mindfulness coach writing this experienced panic attacks for the first few months (and even occasionally in the first few years) of practice.
What changed, was my ability to actually stay with the intense discomfort of panic. When I felt rising anxiety or panic, instead of thinking I could fight it or run away, I attempted to welcome it in. To sit with it and actually go along for the uncomfortable, painful ride of sensations, emotions and thoughts that accompany an attack.
Over the years, this started to seep into other areas of life. The power of my anxious thoughts and feelings got less and less as I realised a) it could not harm me, and b) it didn't define me.
It’s important to note that healing the mind and body is never a linear journey with each day better than the last. At some points, I felt I’d made massive leaps forward, then a month later that I’d taken 100 steps back - unable to get on public transport or do any exercise due to anxiety. It became clear that this process takes patience, forgiveness and a lot of strength.
The anxious wiring of our brains is not our fault. Neither is it our parents, or their parents, the rest of society, or our DNA. It’s a complex combination of all of these things plus more, mushed together, resulting in some of us forming stable attachments and mental resilience, whilst others are triggered and go into a 'stress response' very easily.
They key is not what caused the anxious wiring but rather how it shows up today. When we become aware of how it shows up, we can actually learn to respond wisely and compassionately to the anxious ‘monkey mind’ in a way that re-calibrates our threshold for stress. What maybe was once unbearable, becomes manageable or even insignificant.
Essentially, we are slowly rewiring the brain through the repetition (or practice) of mindful awareness, relaxation and acceptance.
If you’d like to start your mindfulness journey, I recommend arranging a chat via email. Or if you feel confident, go ahead and book your place on the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course starting 11th April 2019 in London Waterloo.
Whatever ‘history’ you are bringing with you - ALL of it is welcome!