My interest in self-care and being aware of ourselves comes from a year in which I lost my mindfulness and emotionality. It was 2011, I was about to graduate, and I started having panic attacks. At first, I didn’t understand what they were, although I was about to have a Psychology degree. When things happen to you, and you’re not enough aware of your life, your soul, your mind and your emotions, you can’t figure out what’s going on. I felt overwhelmed and lost. I felt like I was going to die and I became hypochondriac. Sometimes, I felt as if my hands were not mine anymore. Sometimes I felt as if my house and the streets of Rome in which I had spent the last 4 years of my life, were alien and detached. I wasn’t myself anymore. I didn’t even know who I had been before.
Fortunately, friends in Rome were my second family: they supported me, and, above all, they helped me open my eyes. No reason why I had to go to the ER, no reason why I had to take antihistamines to breathe better. I would have breathed, if only I had listened to and understood the emotional weight I had inside. But, at that moment, the point was: will I survive to next attack? Will I stop feeling set apart and inconsolable?
At that time I didn’t know why I felt that way, why I didn’t had control over myself, over my perceptions, my feelings and emotions.
As a psychology student, I just knew one thing: panic is a product of my mind, that, somehow, turns physical.
For this reason, I started dealing with panic in a different way: a more mindful, present, attentive method. I started noticing what happened just before the attacks: what sensations arose, what feelings, what was happening around me.
Generally speaking, there are two main strategies to deal with panic attacks: manage it, or understand the reasons why you feel it. At the beginning of that year, I preferred managing the symptoms. Probably I wasn’t ready enough, or I just didn’t want to see the emotional weight I was talking about before.
In this article, I’d like to share with you the things that helped me going through my attacks, hoping this will help someone else.
One of the most common tips is to make deep and slow breaths, like 1-2-3 inhale, hold, 1-2-3 exhale. For me, this strategy started working once I got used to control my panic sensations. At the beginning, I didn’t really believe that I would have managed them: I started breathing, but often there was some negative thinking in the background. Thoughts like “it’s coming, and I’m alone at home, and if I feel sick… How can I ask for help? Wait… Where’s my phone?!”. I was already thinking that the panic would have overcome me. But, once I realized that panic came directly from my mind, breathing properly aided me in many cases: on the train, at parties, at the university.
Another “advanced” strategy that helped me a lot was to stay in contact with panic. This is the twin of the breathing trick. If you try to go against the panic, to refuse it, to think “please go away!”, the sensations become bigger and bigger. When you start thinking “my heart throbs, but I won’t have a heart attack”, “I feel dizzy, but I won’t faint”, you start to observe panic. And the only thing that grows… Is your awareness. And your clarity.
The weak point of these tips, is that if you’re not ready enough to face the attack, they can make you feel worse. That’s why one of the best strategies I’ve found at the beginning of my “symptom management” was to seek another sensation, and focus on it. I needed that sensation to be clear and strong enough to distract me from the first symptoms. For example, I used to put my arms under cold running water, or have some fresh air on my face, or feel the summer sun on my skin. Some good music works, too.
Furthermore, calling a friend can help you relieve the sensations, not only because you’ll feel understood, but also because panic will become something you can talk about, something you can re-think with other people, instead of a fearful fantasy.
Sometimes my attention was naturally driven by something, like someone talking next door, or a tv show. This was the first cue that made me think that all those bad sensations were… false. If my attention was caught by something else… I would just forget about them.
A little disclaimer: I’m not advising you not to take medicines, if you need them. I felt that I had the resources to get out that situation alone, I asked for professional advice, and my physician supported my choice. And when I felt ready, I turned to a psychoanalyst, who helped me understand what was going on inside of me.
Panic attacks are often messages of our mind that we don’t want to listen to, things we don’t want to know, emotions and desires we don’t want to live: but they exist anyway, and try to make their voice heard. After this experience I turned my attention to mental health prevention, to boost psychological well being and promote self-development. This blog is somehow part of this personal and professional journey I chose. Thanks for being part of it :)
Any comment or question? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section!