By the tender age of 12, I had already mastered the art of having panic attacks. They would throw me out of bed in the middle of the night, my heart racing, lungs hyperventilating, body shaking uncontrollably, my mind unable to think clearly.
I felt like I was dying.
I suffered alone like this for many years. I never told my parents because I lived with a very ill father and didn’t want to put extra worry on my mom’s shoulders.
Some years later, I was living in the U.S. and practicing physical therapy, with a focus on neuropediatrics. I knew a lot about the human brain by this point in my life. It was and is a great passion of mine. Yet, all my knowledge about the wonders of the human brain and its nervous system didn’t make those panic attacks go away.
In fact, they got worse.
Because of my aversion to medication, I began relying on some “panic tools” (my “Mindfulness Survival Kit”) that I had intuitively learned over the years. That list of tools got bigger as I became a clinician, specialized in the brain.
When I felt anxiety and panic come on, I immediately focused on the breath.
Deep, long breaths (with a focus on exhalation) is the single most important thing you can do when you’re nervous, anxious or in panic-mode.
Remember to breathe from your belly, not the top of your lungs. This type of breathing activates the vagus nerve: a large nerve that is responsible for relaxation of the nervous system and consequently, your body.
Body relaxation was second on my list of panic tools.
Anxiety causes a constriction of your blood vessels (except to the legs) and a tightening of your muscles. When you focus your attention on relaxing each part of your body, one at a time, you begin to feel calmer almost immediately.
If I was alone when a panic attack hit, I’d start humming.
This practice works marvels on anxiety because the vibration of your vocal cords also activates the vagus nerve and immediately calms your Sympathetic Nervous System (the one responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response and anxiety).
These 3 practices became indispensable in helping me cope with anxiety over the years.
25 years after having my first panic attacks, I was a changed person.
I had left clinical practice, after experiencing a major spiritual awakening and was living life in a state of bliss. By then, I had been meditating daily for over a year — my anxiety miraculously disappearing.
My spiritual awakening had shifted my passion from the human brain to another master organ that I now admire just as much:
The human heart.
I was working daily with my heart, opening it up with meditation and healing work. Somehow, all those years of specialization on the brain had made me forget the greatest of all our treasures:
Our heart and its capacity to love and heal.
I now loved the brain and heart equally and realized just how much they needed each other.
And it was in this state of bliss and awe that I had another epic panic attack.
I was having lunch with my mom when I suddenly felt my heart rate increase and my lungs constrict. These sensations caught me off-guard because I honestly thought my years of struggle with anxiety were over.
I put my fork down and noticed my mind was racing with panicked, incoherent thoughts. You need to go to the hospital, you’re dying!
I leaned back in my chair and took-in the ocean breeze. I was having lunch with my mom at one of our favorite island restaurants, overlooking my favorite stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. My mind continued:
Get up and escape so your mom doesn’t notice.
In the past, I made it a routine to escape social situations when my anxiety kicked into high gear. I felt like a wild animal that retreats alone into the woods when it’s wounded. But now I was a very different person, armed with so much more experience.
I reached for my Mindfulness Survival Kit practices again (except the humming). Breath. Body Relaxation.
But suddenly, my meditation experience brought in another spontaneous practice that I had never used before: Intention.
I refused to get up and leave. I refused to ask my mom to go to the hospital with me. I simply decided I didn’t have to listen to what my mind ordered. In that moment, I set a really strong mental intention:
“It is my intention to bring my body and mind into a state of calmness.”
My mom continued talking and eating her lunch, completely unaware of what was happening within me. As soon as I repeated that intention in my mind again, I felt a shift. Yes, I actually felt slightly better.
That’s when I added another tool to my Mindfulness Kit: observation with detachment.
I simply sat there and observed my body having a panic attack. I observed how it felt better once I intended to calm myself. I observed my lungs breathe. I observed my mind race and then slowly quiet down.
Observing with detachment means that you keep a distance between You (the consciousness that can observe itself) and everything going on both outside and inside.
In other words, if You can observe your own mind thinking, then who is it that observes? Some call it the Real You. No matter what you call it, try to keep a non-biased distance between yourself and all the chaos going on inside your body and mind.
I realize this is probably going to be the hardest practice to master. At least it was for me.
It can be incredibly difficult to observe from a distance when your mind is telling you you’re dying and your heart and body are freaking out! That’s where the practice of meditation came in handy for me.
Meditation (any type) helps you slowly distance yourself from the incessant streams of thought that arise under your skull. This practice may not help during a panic attack, but if you use it daily, it will eventually help you prevent panic attacks and anxiety altogether.
And so I sat there for what seemed like only 2–3 minutes, observing my body have a panic attack and intending that it calm down. Then just like that, the anxiety was gone.
My mother never knew what was going on and I continued our conversation like nothing had happened.
That was the last time I ever had a panic attack.
Breath. Body Relaxation. Humming. Intention. Observation With Detachment. Meditation.
Are you ready to try the 6 practices in my Mindfulness Survival Kit?
Disclaimer: they just may completely change your life and lead to deep states of calmness and happiness.