How to Train your Inner Dragon: Mastering Panic Attacks and Anxiety
Posted on April 1st, 2013 at 2:00 pm
What are the qualities of dragons? Most myths say they are unpredictable. Panic is similar. Panic attacks are one of the most powerful forms of anxiety, affecting nearly 1 in 50 people, twice as many women as men. Dragons are an apt symbol for panic because, like dragons, they are feared, debilitating, unpredictable events which leave sufferers feeling helpless and without personal control. Even simple tasks like going out in public, attending class, or shopping can be intensely painful because of fear of an attack. Yet, with the right approach, panic can be tamed. Mindfulness in particular offers an effective, way of dealing with this inner dragon.
Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” This is especially true of panic attacks, as fear of an attack is one of the main concerns. You cannot actually die from a panic attack but the mind creates a fear loop and cognitive distortions follow. Fear takes on a life of its own as sufferers create protective belief systems in order to avoid triggers. Ideas about what is safe and what is not have side-effects—namely lowering the quality of life and restricting your choices. Ironically, narrowing one’s activities for fear of a panic attack has the opposite effect of increasing anxiety.
Anxiety and fear arise from the deep-rooted emotional fight or flight centre of the brain. Just as animals can sense fear in a person and respond more aggressively, the fear centre of the brain recognizes when we are afraid and reinforces the belief that “X” trigger really is dangerous. The fear does not go away, it gets fed. “feed me and I grow" is the fear's motto. Yet, panic sufferers feel that if they do not fight that means they are colluding with the fear, which is even worse. There is a better way of dealing panic attacks. The following steps can help deal with panic by directing the mind towards nonjudgment, focus on what your are doing, and relaxation:
Notice the Fear. Notice your fears in the way you notice passing scenery on a train or the credits of a movie—watch them pass without engaging with them or trying to ignore them. You can say something like, “There you are my little panic fears, I see you,” and that’s as much attention as they need.
Name It: Name the underlying fear. This step takes some of the wind out of the sails of the fear response. Naming the fear acknowledges it without aligning yourself with it; you can name the fears but you do not have to agree with them. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to breathe,” “I am afraid of others noticing how red in the face I am”. Fear may be focused on physical sensations: “I’m breathing shallow, I think I’m going to have a heart attack.” Learning how to deal with automatic thoughts is also a useful skill used here.
Be Present: Focus your awareness on the present moment. More than anything, breathe—you cannot experience anxiety and breathe deeply at the same time. Although it sounds simplistic, breathing with awareness is a very present-centered action. Others ways of being present include noticing the feeling of the chair supporting your back, the green grass beneath your feet, the feeling of your fingers on the keyboard or the tenseness of your hand couched over the mouse or touchpad; scan your body for its connection to the present.
I work with clients most on the third step, finding ways of creating a refined sense of being present and focusing on current activities without ignoring, repressing, or distracting. At first clients may say, “But all I think of is what will happen if I have an attack, I don’t want to focus on this!” Worries, fears, and anxieties are actually distractions from the present. Mindfulness teaches us to see these distractions as passing scenery rather than engaging with them. When we engage we create dialogues and sequences, and then are dragged around by fear.
Mindfulness is a gentle, consistent awareness or focus. Being mindful is the quality of your presence in the world. The goal of Mindfulness is not to train your mind to ignore fear. In fact, the harder you try to not think about something the more you actually will (called "ironic rebound"). Being mindful means being present in the fullness of your life and letting the distractions come or go as they will like a continuous set of movie credits which you do not focus on.
“Mindfulness” refers to the quality of presence in your life. Anxiety, fear, and other distractions become less attractive as the richness of the present unfolds with mindful focus. Being mindful takes you out of distraction and returns you to the natural state of the Self, one of easeful, curious, present attention.
In Western mythology, dragons are feared, unpredictable monsters to be conquered by heroic acts. The ironic thing about the heroic approach to fear is that it reinforces fear. In Eastern mythology dragons are seen differently. When approached with the right skills and understanding, they are a force of nature woven into the fabric of life. With the right training, skills, and understanding, you can render your dragons to their proper place—a part of your inner nature, not the master of it.
Contact me for more information on how to tame your dragons and bring panic attacks under control.