…and do it anyway. That’s how the saying goes, but if we apply it to fear that comes to you without purpose or application it’s difficult to know what to actually do. This post is about how I worked through my feelings when, a couple of weeks ago, for seemingly no reason at all I felt the panic rising.
It’s Thursday and I’ve left work an hour early to catch a train, and whilst ambling at a leisurely pace down towards Exeter St Davids I suddenly become aware that although I have an overwhelming urge to yawn, I just am not able to. Oh no…this is normally one of the first signs of a panic attack for me. The reason I feel like yawning is because subconsciously I’ve tightened up and haven’t been breathing properly, only to the very top part of my lungs. The feeling of being unable to take in enough air is intensely frustrating, so I try again…yawwwww…argh, it just doesn’t hit that lovely, stretchy pinacle-of-the-yawn bit. So I keep walking, feeling the tension in my shoulders build up, a thundering sting in my chest as my heart speeds up and a familiar dull ache thud under the shoulder blade on the right hand side of my back – these places are where my anxiety physically manifest themselves.
I start to rationally think through why. What was I doing or thinking before I became consciously aware that my breathing had gone funny? I’m honestly not really sure why I’m feeling stressed – I’ve had a perfectly fine day, I’ve eaten healthily, I’ve done some writing, I’ve hung out with two of my best friends at lunch and I’m on my way to Leicester to see my favourite person. It’s a perfectly good day and normal situation. I left the studio with an adequate feeling of organisation and I’m pretty sure I’ve packed everything I need. I’m not rushing. Still, I notice that my pace is quick, hurried. So I slow. Down. I remind myself I’ve got time. I stop for a couple of seconds, readjust my bags, close my eyes, breathe in deep and out, releasing the tension. I open my eyes and I walk on with steady purpose, feeling the ground under my feet. My heart is still racing but I tell myself that it’s ok…It’s only a panic attack, worse things have happened and I’m not going to feel like this forever…I’m going to calm down soon.
I get to the platform with plenty of time to go, so I sit down on a bench and liberate my shoulder from the burden of my satchel. There is still a twinging beat from within my ribcage and a relentless tension that longs to be eased with heavy sighs. The adrenaline pumping stress response is on full alert, but without any reason to fight or, despite being about to board a train, take flight. The frustration bubbles up again -WHY am I feeling so fucking stressed out? Ok, so I might be juggling four different deadlines, and perhaps leaving work early therefore wasn’t the most productive choice, but my boyfriend lives a million miles away which, yes, is a pain in the arse (or head, or chest) because we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like and it’s costing us both a small fortune each time we do, and yes, my credit card is constantly yelling at me from the depths of my repressed memories, which reminds me, I can’t afford to pay my gym membership anymore, but I’ve got shin splints and can’t run so I need to figure out how to keep fit as it would certainly help me sleep because I’m just SO TIRED OF FEELING TIRED!
The domino effect of negative associations cascades through my brain…with a mix of anxious adrenaline and hot anger I stamp my foot and rip out my earphones…and a multitude of sound flows back into my nervous system and synchs with the world around me. Its intensity surprises me, and I decide to take a moment to listen to it’s layers, suddenly remembering a kundalini yoga meditation technique I learned years ago to help me fall asleep. I decide it’s worth a shot so I take a deep breath, close my eyes and lean back – avoiding the feeling of looking a bit silly, telling myself that no-one else is interested in wether or not I have my eyes open. First, I notice sensations in my body, from the temperature in my palms, to the sensation in my toes, to the pressure of the seat underneath me. I tune into the sound of my own physiology, my breathing, the rustling of my coat as I shift position. I listen to the conversation of my fellow bench-perchers and the sound of footsteps up and down the stairs to the platform bridge; then to the noise of a train rumbling away from the station, an announcement about a delay to a Penzance train; and to the far away hum of traffic and the screech of a couple of seagulls above. I tune back to the rhythm of my breathing and notice that the flow of air in and out has eased
I then remember something I’ve just learnt in the NLP course I’ve been doing recently, about the calming, focused mindset you get into when you use your peripheral vision. So I look ahead and find a point slightly higher than eye-level, and whilst keeping my focus on this spot I also draw my awareness toward the things that are to either side of me, just inside my vision. Sometimes it can actually help if you waggle your fingers and pull them back until you can almost not see them…but I’m not about to start doing that in the middle of the station.
I try to continue this awareness whilst also taking in the details of the platform. I notice the way the iron beams in the roof are so beautifully detailed and symmetrical and the way the cold November air makes people’s breath steam up in front of their faces as they chat. I suddenly feel a sense of compassion and belonging from being surrounded by people who, like me, all have an inner dialogue and their own conflicts and their own beautiful light-bulb moments of awakened realisation.
I breathe deeply again, and try to notice where the residues of tension are located in my body. And I stop resisting the anxiety, I stop trying to change it…I just feel. And because I’m now trying to pin-point it’s exact physical positioning, like a map-maker trying to judge the placement a peak in the distance, I’m welcoming the emotion with curiosity and feel a wave of acceptance wash over me. It’s ok to feel like this. It’s only fear. I’m actually not doing too badly at all. And anything that isn’t going so well isn’t stuck and will change. I can change.
And to be honest, “well” or “badly” are just conceptualised reference points, that sometimes become warped, unrealistic and unhelpful. I am not good nor bad. I’m perfect, just the way I am right now. The fact that I am breathing, and that I’m aware that I am breathing, makes me a miracle. A stunning example of the intelligence of nature. And with that awareness comes the realisation that my experience is my own responsibility, and in my own control. And that is empowering beyond belief. A simple exercise has reminded me of my creative power to make choices in the now that propels me towards a future where my current worries aren’t worries anymore. A little bit of stillness of mind, reflection and grounding myself in the only thing that really exists – this moment, right now -has given me newfound respect and compassion for myself.
The ache in my chest has gone. I board the train with a spring in my step, marvelling at how lucky I am to live in an age where decent public transport and mini-bottles of red wine are available to me. As I sit down at an empty table seat I also remind myself that I’ve packed homemade hummus and carrot sticks, and that I’ve got two and a half hours ahead of me just to sketch and listen to my audiobook on Integrative Nutrition. At the end of my journey I’m going to get the biggest bear hug from someone who really loves me. Life really isn’t so bad.
I’ve heard several people say they don’t believe in mindfulness. That it’s made up, new-age hippy bullshit that doesn’t have any basis in sense or application in reality. I’m here to tell you that it does. At least it does for me. And if I’m the only person in the word I’ll eat my blog.
Ps: As an addition, I would just like to say that if the panic keeps rising, and deep breathing, calming the mind through focused concentration and being kind to yourself by thinking positively (which, granted, IS HARD when you’re having an anxiety attack!), then I would advise to call a trusted friend or even a helpline like Mind (0300 123 3393). It can really help to feel like you’re not alone, to vocalise your emotions and to have someone understand, empathetically listen to you and reassure you…If you’re walking then sit down, If you’re driving then pull over, stay put in a safe place until the shaking has stopped!! You will be ok, it might just take a little while…
Hope this has helped!! All my love