The February 2013 issue of Details, the one with sexy Garrett Hedlund on the cover, has an interesting article on panic attacks (see “Panic Nation” by Jason Feifer). As someone who has had his share of panic attacks, I appreciated the men’s magazine for addressing issues of stress and anxiety as related to men. Men are generally unwilling to discuss such matters for fear of being perceived as weak. That stigma is changing, however, perhaps, as Feifer notes, thanks to “a string of high-profile athletes and A-list actors [that] have recently acknowledged suffering from panic attacks” including Robert Pattinson and Ryan Reynolds.
The article describes the physiological effects of an attack — hyperventilating, sweating, increased heart rate, chest pains, a rush of adrenaline, and the “fight or flight instinct ratcheting to DEFCON 1 without prompting” — and it suggests the best way to combat an attack is to sit with it, which is to say don’t fight it at all. “It may sound counterintuitive,” writes Feifer, “but just let it happen. If you fight the symptoms, it’s like physiological quicksand — resistance only gets you in deeper. Instead, surrender and wait for the feelings to pass.” He suggests avoiding stimulants like caffeine and workouts, which elevate the heart rate and cause the body to sense danger which can then trigger a panic attack.
I agree with a lot of what the article suggests, in particular the “don’t fight it” approach. I, too, have learned to sit with uncomfortable feelings, especially as they churn up in the soil of living one day at a time. I have had to sit through panic attacks, however long or short they may be, and however directly or indirectly they may have been triggered. But I have also learned the importance of living in the present, staying in the here and now, simply being where my feet are. The Details article makes no mention of a “live in the present” approach to preventing or staving off panic attacks; instead it describes coping techniques like pacing and distracting the mind.
Through rigorous honesty and increased self-awareness, I have learned that my anxiety (which can often lead panic attacks) is the result of dwelling on past failures and dreading future consequences, simultaneously. When I feel anxious, my head goes crazy with the possible permutations of events that could happen because of something that already happened, and if I narrate those outcomes in my head, I begin to feel as if my head will explode, and then the panic attack sets in. Rather than think of the past and the future, I am learning to live in the present, something that sounds ridiculously simple, but which is actually difficult to do. I live in my head. I think too much. My tendency is to over-analyse (sometimes catastrophize) the events in my life including peoples’ reactions and interactions with me and my reactions and interactions with them, often missing the reality of the present, which often is delightful and calm. I find that when I stay in the present — working on whatever project is at hand or “being where my feet are” — I have fewer feelings of anxiety and life is a bit more enjoyable.
A taoist fable comes to mind: A monk is being chased by a tiger and leaps off a cliff. He catches onto a thorny blackberry bush, which pierces his palm. Below him he sees another tiger, and he can’t decide if he should pull himself up and face the tiger above him or let go and face the tiger below. Suddenly, he spots a blackberry, and his fear dissolves, and he picks the blackberry and eats it. It was the most delicious blackberry he had ever tasted. (See Finding the New Normal blog). Put in another way by a friend of mine who shared the importance of living in the present: “with one foot in the past and one foot in the future, you’re pissing all over the present.”
Since I heard this story it has helped me stay in the present, and I’ve noticed that I haven’t had a panic attack (yet). Remember to live in the present, to be where your feet are, and to savor the deliciousness of the metaphorical blackberry in front of you, here and now.