How I Started Suffering from Panic Disorder
With the darker days of the year approaching, I always think of the winter of 2004/2005. It was the worst winter of my entire life. From one day to another, I started suffering from panic disorder.
After my first panic attack in December, my days were filled with anxiety, more panic attacks, depression, and lots of crying. And the strange things is, that, when your body and mind are filled with fear, time moves very slowly.
It took me a year to recover.
My Recovery from Panic Disorder and Depression
I owe my recovery to the practice of yoga. Becoming aware of my breathing pattern, the sensations in my body, and cultivating relaxation in my body, helped me to take the edge off the panic attacks.
The panic attacks didn’t disappear from one day to another, but they became lighter each time. Until the point that they completely vanished.
It felt like I had conquered a very dark period of my life. I also felt very confident that I would never have to experience it again.
12 Years Later: An Unexpected Panic Attack Relapse
It happened during a Vipassana Meditation Retreat. To get a picture, these are 10 day silent retreats with 10 hours of meditation a day. Very intense!
With shorter nights of sleep than I was used to, a painful menstruation that kept me from sleeping at all, and the strict meditation schedule, I experienced a panic attack relapse.
Worst of all, during the retreat we were not allowed to speak. So, I was all alone with my horrors. It was like I was being tested to see how well I could handle this panic by myself.
What did the Panic Attack Feel Like?
The panic attack took over when I was lying down in my bed at night. I felt an incapacity in my body to relax, and when I closed my eyes it was like someone was projecting slides of detailed massacres on my retina. An image would only last a second, and then another horroriffic scene would pop up before my eyes.
My first reaction was to completely panic, not knowing what to do. I walked to the bathroom where I turned on the light, so I could spend some time with my eyes open.
During panic attacks, it can be difficult to remember and apply the strategies that help to pacify the panic. Luckily, I had had a lot of practice, and this is what I did:
I stopped fighting the images in my mind
Even though the images were scary, I allowed them to just pass through my mind. I trusted that eventually they would slow down and pass.
I focussed all my attention on my breath
Breathing in slowly to my lower belly. And breathing out through my mouth. Breath after breath.
I relaxed my body with each exhalation
It can feel difficult and counter-intuitive to relax, but it is exactly this what can help to pacify the attack. So, with each exhalation I tried to relax my body as much as possible, for the duration of about 10-15 minutes.
Slowly, my abdominal breath and the relaxation of my body created a signal of safety. My minded started to calm down, and after a while I felt the well-known switch from fight-or-flight modus into relaxation.
Breaking the Rules of the Retreat to Take Care of Myself
I still had 5 retreat days to go. To diminish my chances of having more panic attacks, I decided to break the rules of the retreat. Normally I am somebody who respects almost every rule, so it took some effort to awaken my inner rebel.
During meditations I took more rest by allowing sleep to come or by taking it easy on the meditation technique. I gave priority to taking gentle walks to help me ground my feet and doing yoga stretches that helped me to connect to my body. It felt good to prioritize my own health, instead of abiding by someone else’s rules.
I did not experience another panic attack during the retreat, and was extremely happy when my boyfriend picked me up at the end of the 10 days!
Moral of the Story
The lesson I learned from this relapse, is that I am not immune to panic attacks. Under specific circumstances, I am still prone to experiencing panic and anxiety.
However, due to all the practice I have had with calming exercises and breathing techniques, I am able to deal with panic attacks much better than in the past. One panic attack does not develope anymore into a panic disorder.
The experience also emphasized how important it is to take my well-being into my own hands. If this means breaking the rules, conventions or expectations, then so be it.
This winter I am 15 years free of panic disorder. That is worth a celebration!