Panic Disorder and Mindfulness - a Story
5th March 2020
Panic Disorder and Mindfulness Meditation – A Story by Roger Woolman
I have come to learn that everybody has a story and often a desire to tell it. I have always been reluctant to tell this part of my story.
I started to suffer from panic attacks around 23 or 24 years ago. At that time, and for two or three years after they started, I didn't know what a panic attack was; I hadn't heard of nor come across them in my life. This may have allowed the problem to embed, to become the norm; either way, they were a significant problem for me by the end of the 1990s.
We could try to look at what caused these panic attacks or this panic disorder, but I feel that anyone that suffers from anxiety or panic could have a completely different course and background which has resulted in the same kind of problem. Furthermore, I am not qualified to diagnose either myself or anyone else. The cause of my panic disorder ultimately had no bearing on the resolution of the problem.
So, 20 years or more of struggling with regular, debilitating, panic attacks that could happen any day, any time of the day, multiple times of the day etc. Gradually you start to change your lifestyle, your habits, your behaviour, your interaction with the world, your job, your diet. I could go on.
I read numerous books on the topic over the years, which sometimes helped for a short while, but that was the extent of my seeking help. I was always a bit of a perfectionist and wanted to be seen as such, and I also wanted to maintain a tough exterior, so it wasn't the sort of thing that I would publicise, either in my social life or, especially, at work.
Twenty years pass, and I'm living quite a healthy life. I have little or no vices, and I'm fit and healthy except for this problematic condition that I've accumulated and almost learnt to live with. Panic disorder is part of me; it's just something that I will have to put up with in my life; it's been there for almost half of it. This is my story.
That is until the summer of 2017 when I'm having a run of bad luck with panic attacks and a constant feeling of fight or flight. I seek the help of a friend who I trust, and who I know has the insight and experience of helping people through her acupuncture practice. She suggests that I might like to try some mindfulness meditation and she passes me Suryacitta and Gaynor's website address. At this point, I'm ready to try anything new, so I book in for a three-day mindfulness and compassion weekend.
On the first day of the course I'm struggling already as I'm told to concentrate on my breath. Unfortunately, my panic disorder has made me hyper-vigilant of any bodily sensations, and the last thing I want to do is monitor my breathing! The practice makes me very anxious and bordering on panic. I might have to bail out on day one.
During a break, I talked to Suryacitta about it. He reassures me that it's okay, I can pay attention to a word that I can repeat to myself instead of focusing on the breath, and we persevere. He also tells me that the word is meaningless, which makes me curious. I get through that day, and I practice again that evening ready for the next day.
I'm not entirely sure what happened between the first day and the second day, but on the second day, I can concentrate on my breathing. I had spent years trying to practice diaphragmatic breathing as a coping mechanism for panic attacks, which had only made them worse through analysing what I was doing. I couldn't take a deep breath for years, it affected me swimming, singing and playing musical instruments. But on day two, I am now concentrating on my breath. This is a big success for me.
On the second or third day, Suryacitta introduced the idea of thought-labelling and particularly labelling unhelpful or distressing thoughts with the prefix "having the thought …". He shows us the effect that this has on the thought and how it removes its power and weight. There was a lot to take in over those first three days, but this was my simplest takeaway, and I was going to use this anytime that I felt anxious, just as I had practised in the kuti hut; anytime that catastrophic thoughts presented themselves, anytime that I thought I was experiencing the precursor to a panic attack.
It's not my place to get into the science of what was happening each time I was doing this, whether mystic or neuroplastic, it was gradually working. They say that you don't stop having panic attacks until you're no longer afraid of having them. After three or four months of daily mindfulness meditation and the practice of thought labelling whenever unhelpful thought arose, I was no longer afraid of having a panic attack. This was around the end of 2017. I haven't had a panic attack since.
What began as self-help very quickly became something much bigger and continues for me today as a journey into a new way of experiencing the world. I always had an interest in Eastern philosophies and mysticism. The oldest book that I own is a book on Buddhist teachings that I never really read properly, but I kept on my bookshelf for over 30 years. Ultimately it wasn't a book that I needed, whether that was a book about Buddhism, anxiety or psychology. What I needed was someone to show me a different way of being. A way of being that has made me much less interested in my personal story, but slightly less reluctant in sharing this part of it.
Roger Woolman, March 2020
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