How to Overcome Fear, Anxiety and Panic using Mindfulness Meditation.

 

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All of us will experience fear on occasions. It is a normal healthy biological reaction warning us of perceived threat or danger. However, some people experience fear more frequently, some even on a daily basis, perhaps manifesting as generalised anxiety or in the form of panic attacks.

Often people cope with fear by ignoring such feelings when they surface or by denying them. Many people try to push the feelings away, because they don’t like them and are not prepared to accept them, while others engage in wrestling and battling them as if they were the very threat itself, instead of the messenger.

What I am going to suggest, which might seem a little radical when all you want to do us get rid of these feelings, is to “make friends with your fear.” You see, the problem is, the more you try to battle, ignore or push these feelings away, the more they will surface. When you try to banish them to the deepest, darkest dungeon in your castle, no matter how hard you try, you will still hear them calling you. The harder you try to get rid of them, the more you will experience them. Why? Because you are focusing your energy on them and when you do this, rather like trying not to think about an annoying song or a tune that goes round and round in your head, it will simply magnify your experience.

The first thing I want you to know is that these symptoms cannot harm you. I will say it again, these symptoms cannot harm you. You will not have a heart attack, stop breathing, you will not faint and you will not lose control or lose your mind. Fear simply mobilises your body to be ready to fight off a real or imagined foe.

I will show you how, using a technique called mindfulness, you can achieve what you desire, that is, not to be overwhelmed by your fear and instead to bring about a new relationship with your fear. So, instead of viewing fear as something that should be suppressed or eliminated, we will be using mindfulness to bring about acceptance.

“The way of mindfulness,” says best selling author and mindfulness master Jon Kabat-Zinn,” is to accept ourselves right now, as we are, symptoms or no symptoms, pain or no pain, fear or no fear. Instead of rejecting our experience as undesirable, we ask, “What is the symptom saying, what is it telling me about my body and my mind right now?”

What he is suggesting is that we listen, take a closer look and get acquainted, instead of reaching for the diazepam, rescue remedy or whatever it is we grab in our  immediate desire to make it go away.

Using mindfulness and harnessing quiet gentle breathing we begin to make friends with our fear. As Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests, “We allow ourselves, for a moment at least, to go right into the full-blown feeling of the symptom. This takes a certain amount of courage…dip your toe in…and move a little closer for a clearer look.”

We begin to approach our symptoms “as we would a shy animal sunning itself  on a grassy bank.” Ever so gently, becoming aware of our feelings about the symptoms as they appear. Perhaps we feel anger, frustration, anxiety or despair. We may say to ourselves, “Why now, not again or oh no, I cannot bear this again.” The key is to look as dispassionately as possible, with a non-judging mind. We need to accept that whatever we are feeling, it is here now. It is already with us, already part of our experience in this moment. The key is to accept our feelings as they are, opening to the fear in a kindly way rather than continually trying to block it out and overcome it.

When you experience symptoms simply observe and watch as they unfold. Try not to react, responding as if the symptoms were a wild animal out to get you. Instead, calm, tame them by making friends. Observe your moment-by-moment experience and view it as a “process” instead of getting caught up in the “content.” As you do so, you will discover that there is a “flow” of changing sensations and responses. Allow yourself to be curious, interested in a dispassionate way in the quality of the sensations and your experience, rather than get caught up in the distorted imaginations you tell yourself. These fantasies about what may or may not happen simply fuel fear, anxiety and despair.

It won’t be easy, as resistance will re-emerge many times and your first response will be to block it out, but with practice you can learn to resist this habitual behaviour and you will learn to interrupt the cycle of tension, reaction and suffering and replace it with peace, awareness and kindness.

As you become intimately acquainted with the nuances of your experience you will gently tame that which you wish to banish. You will find that instead of visiting you regularly, stirring up terror and suffering, the occasions of fear will change, they will no longer be completely overwhelming; the intensity and duration will diminish, and you will be able to smile instead of tensing rigidly. You will begin to break free from that which bound you.

Here is a simple befriending mindfulness exercise:

Make yourself comfortable in your body. Spend a moment loosening or adjusting your posture. Whether you are standing, sitting or lying down.

Now place your attention on your breathing. Notice the in-breath, notice where the breath enters your body, the nostrils… Notice how at the end of the in-breath the breath naturally starts to subside; follow the breath. Try to find that momentary pause between the in and the out-breath, the out and the in-breath; a moment of stillness and space. Notice how without having to do anything, the breath rises and falls naturally.

Encourage a tender, gentle awareness to permeate the breath, so the breath softens any resistance and with full intention, breathe in kindness and compassion, breathe out tension and fear.

When we are aware that what we are feeling is fear, we make friends by saying:

“Breathing in – fear I know you are there.”

“Breathing out – I accept you, I will take care of you.”

Simply practise this over and over, remind yourself that  these feelings will soon pass. By developing a calm, mindful relationship with your body you will learn to let go of fear, anxiety and panic.

Until next time, Steve

We would be delighted if you visit our facebook sites:

www.facebook.com/yourmentalhealthmatters

www.facebook.com/bexhillmindfulnesscentre

Steve Clifford Senior Accredited Integrative Psychotherapist.                                           Accredited Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist.
References:

Burch, V. (2008). “Living well with pain & illness: The mindful way to free yourself from suffering,” Piatkus.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004). “Full catastrophe living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation,” Piatkus.

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How to overcome panic attacks

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What is a panic attack?

Imagine you are walking along the street or you are in the middle of a busy supermarket and you are suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of panic. You begin to perspire, your heart beats loudly, your chest tightens and you struggle to breathe…you are unsteady on your feet, perhaps wanting to run, but feeling unable to do so. Your whole body trembles and you experience dizziness; hands and feet tingle as you gasp for air; you feel a choking or smothering feeling, and with thoughts racing and feeling faint, you worry about losing control, or worst still dying…This is what a typical panic attack might feel like.

Of course, not everyone who experiences a “panic attack” will have all these symptoms, but they can be extremely frightening, and to those who have them regularly, they can be so disabling to the point where sufferers avoid situations and places which they associate with these attacks. Often agoraphobia and panic attacks go hand in hand. For some people, so-called “phobic panic attacks” are associated with a deep rooted fear, such as seeing a spider or being in shops or crowded places where they feel unable to escape. Some people have panic attacks with no obvious external cause and these are known as spontaneous panic attacks. These can be brought about by stressful situations or events; running upstairs or even laughter may trigger attacks in people who are prone to them.

Panic attacks usually start with one or two symptoms, perhaps awareness of heart beating or a hot flush rising to a crescendo, peaking in a few seconds; sometimes they can last for a few minutes but seldom for long.

The actual cause of panic attacks can vary, but in essence it could be described as a surge of intense anxiety. This often leads to the individual taking deep breaths in order to try to overcome anxious thoughts and heightened bodily awareness. Over-breathing in this way leads to an excess of oxygen in the body which gives rise to physical discomfort and causes a vicious circle leading to heightened awareness of symptoms and further panic. Panic. Panic attacks are extremely common with many people experiencing one or more at some stage in their lives.

Recognising panic symptoms

The first step in overcoming panic attacks is recognising the symptoms: 

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Feeling flushed (or cold)
  • Tightness or pain in chest
  • Lightheaded
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Tingling in hands/arms or numbness
  • Feeling nauseous or sick
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Choking sensations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Worry over loss of control
  • Fear of death
  • Fear of fainting
  • Fear of going crazy
  • Feeling unreal

Panic attacks from a CBT perspective

From a CBT perspective we look at dividing the symptoms into three broad areas:

Physical Symptoms –  As we can see from the list above, physical symptoms are plentiful. Things like rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath and tightness or pain in the chest make this a very real and frightening experience.

Cognitive symptoms – This is to do with our thoughts (cognitive = thoughts). While the physical symptoms are hard to miss, it is the cognitive component that gives rise to anxiety. For example, we experience pain in the chest, shortness of breath with tingling in the hands and arm region. Our thoughts turn to the possibility of us having a “heart attack.” Images of us lying on the floor, clutching chest with a crowd of onlookers and a paramedic in attendance. Our anxiety levels rise and when we focus on our symptoms they seem to magnify. Our sense of panic and fear rises as a vicious cycle is created, In our mind thoughts are racing.

Behavioural symptoms – This is where you quite simply want to ditch the shopping trolley and escape. This is where you worry that you will have a panic attack if you enter certain places (particularly if you experienced a panic attack there before) or where you avoid people or crowded places. (Avoidance can also be cognitive, such as when you use distraction). Likewise, certain behaviours such as drinking water, reaching for the mobile phone, taking rescue remedy or medication are what we call “safety behaviours.”

The vicious panic cycle

Although you might think that panic attacks simply happens, this is not the case. There is a distinct pattern that can be clearly seen when we look closely at the experience. You will see that various things happen in a sequence of events –

  1. The trigger – This might be a sudden thought, perhaps brought on by an image in our mind or perhaps by a bodily sensation. It might be as a result of a frightening experience we are involved in.
  2. Automatic thought – “I’m in danger,” or “Oh no, not a panic attack,” or “What’s happening?”
  3. Emotional response – Usually fear or raised anxiety.
  4. Bodily reaction – A feeling of breathlessness, of chest tightening, light headedness, heart begins to race, feeling increasingly hot and uncomfortable.
  5. Focus on sensation – We zoom in on our bodily reaction, scanning for symptoms.
  6. Sensations increase – With all our attention on focused on our bodily symptoms they magnify as adrenalin and noradrenalin race through our body.  Our brain sends messages to the heart to beat faster in order to send more oxygen rich blood to our  major muscles, our blood pressure rises and our body prepares to fight off the imagined predator about to attack us.
  7. Imagine the worst – “Is it a heart attack, will I faint, am I going to lose control, will I make a fool of myself, will others notice”… The list of possible negative outcomes increases Our natural urge tells us to avoid, escape or engage in some kind of safety behaviour in order to save ourselves.
  8. Panic – The cycle is complete and we in our mind we are back at point 2 and so 2 to 8 are repeated, sometimes several times over and panic escalates.

Your seven step plan to managing panic attacks.

  1. The first thing to remember is that while panic attacks do not feel pleasant they will pass and they are not dangerous. If it will help, write this down on a piece of paper, laminate it and carry it with you to remind yourself.
  2. Stay calm – turn your attention to your breathing. Take slow gentle breaths into your tummy, place your hand above your tummy button and focus on the gentle rise and fall of your diaphragm.
  3. Try to reduce your anxiety by saying to yourself, “everything will be alright” or “calm.” Try to let the fear go moment by moment.
  4. Shift your attention to your muscles, gently stretch and tense them, then relax them and allow tension to slip away.
  5. Accept what is happening, don’t try to fight it. The feelings will pass, be patient, stay with them and watch them as they gradually fade away.
  6. Stay in the situation, no need to escape. Simply focus on relaxed breathing and calming down,
  7. Pa attention to reducing your discomfort by using your breathing as your friend. Stay in the present and rest assured that your panic will pass.

There are a number of very good websites and organisations you can turn to for advice and support. These include:

The voluntary charity – No Panic – www.nopanic.org.uk    

The website – AnxietyBC – www.anxietybc.com                                                                                                                                                                                                    The mental health charity – MIND – www.mind.org.uk 

The information and resource service – Centre for Clinical Interventions – www.cci.health.wa.gov.au

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) resources – GET.gg – www.getselfhelp.co.uk 

Remember, panic attacks are very straightforward to treat and a good therapist will be able to help you to overcome them in no time at all. To find a CBT therapist near you look up BABCP – www.babcp.com or contact BPS – www.bps.org.uk to find a psychologist trained in CBT. Alternatively you may contact me at – www.stevecliffordcbt.com

Until next time, Steve Clifford, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist

Please post a comment if you have a good tip to help overcome panic attacks?

www.stevecliffordcbt.com

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