This blog contains descriptions of panic attacks. If you would prefer not to read those details, you can skip down.
When I had my first panic attack, I thought I was going to die. I was 21 years old and had no idea what was happening to me.
A friend and I were walking towards the bus stop on our way home from a day in the city when I was suddenly gripped by an overwhelming experience of terror. I felt like I'd slipped into an alternate reality - my mind had fractured. Everything around me looked familiar and yet utterly alient at the same time. Even if I had been able to speak, I couldn't have explained what was happening to me. There were no words to describe the horror happening in my head.
And it didn't stop. That panic attack continued for hours and the symptoms started again within minutes of waking up the next day. Feelings of dark, unspeakable dread that cut me off from everybody and everything around me. I couldn't feel my hands and feet, I was struggling to breathe.
I called my friend, but I could barely speak. She called a doctor and, when he arrived, I still couldn't articlate what I was happening to me. He left a prescription for beta blockers and moved on to his next patient. I didn't feel any better after taking the medication and the side effects were nasty.
This went on for days. I wasn't able to study or work. I became agoraphobic and couldn't leave the house. The only relief I found was vacuuming, which I did for several hours a day. I think it was the combination of the noise and rhythmic movment that took the edge off the feelings of unendurable panic. As the days went on and my symptoms didn't improve, I became convinced that my mind had broken and couldn’t be fixed. I started to wonder if I could carry on.
After weeks of mis-diagnosis and daily anguish, I was introduced to an experienced yoga teacher who understood what was happening to me. Yoga wasn't popular at this point in the early 90's and I had some vague ideas about Indian gurus levitating and meditating in lotus position. But this teacher didn't teach me sun salutations or challenging poses. He taught me how to breathe, move and observe my mind in ways that settled my nervous system and reduced my symptoms. Slowly, I began to heal and my lifelong respect and passion for therapeutic yoga began.
What are panic attacks?
Panic attacks can feel like the end of the world, and they’re not ‘all in the mind.’ The whole body is affected , with symptoms ranging from shaking, sweating and nausea through to chest pain, difficulty breathing and a pounding heart that feels like it’s going to explode. While panic attacks don’t actually cause a heart attack, the experience is no less terrifying.
Panic attacks are bouts of overwhelming anxiety. They can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour and can vary in frequency from once every few years to several times per day. At the height of my own panic disorder, I only had a few minutes each day when I wasn't experiencing acute symptoms. Some days, it was truly unbearable.
Panic attacks can strike at any time and while the direct cause of some attacks can be explained by particular circumstances (such as being in a crowded room or driving on unfamiliar streets), others appear to come from nowhere. For me, this apparent randomness generated acute anxiety. I never knew when the next one would hit and so, eventually, I gave up trying to leave the house altogether. Ironically, my panic attacks were being triggered by the fear of having them - a common experience.
When somebody becomes overwhelmed by the fear of having another panic attack and starts changing their behavior to avoid situations and activities that they fear could trigger an attack, they may be diagnosed with a Panic Disorder. About 5% of Australians experience panic disorder during their lifetime, with slightly more women than men being diagnosed with Panic Disorder.
Treating Panic Attacks with Yoga Therapy
Yoga therapy can be a helpful complementary therapy for students with panic disorder (Vorcapic & Range, 2014; Khalsa et al. 2014). Students can learn simple techniques to stay grounded and connected to their breath and body during a panic attack as well as mindfulness-based practices to manage unwanted thoughts (such as anticipating future panic attacks).
Yoga's emphasis on paying attention to the present moment is particularly helpful for people experiencing a condition that could be characterised as extreme future-mindedness. It's fear of the future that causes panic attacks and, when sufferers can learn to feel safe, comfortable and focused in the present moment, the terror dissipates.
A skilful yoga therapist works with the individual student to find the best techniques to suit their needs – there is never a one-size-fits-all solution. If a student has symptoms of, or has been diagnosed with panic disorder, it's important to refer them to a qualified counsellor or therapist if they aren't already seeing one.
Key yoga techniques for managing acute anxiety and panic disorder include:
- Relaxing muscle tension
- Combining gentle movements with coordinated breathing
- Pranayama - yoga breathing techniques
You'll find more information about these techniques and how to use them - including an illustrated practice - in the free Adore Yoga for Easing Panic Attacks e-Book.
FREE! Yoga for Easing Panic Attacks e-book:
Khalsa, M; Greiner-Ferris, J; Hofmann, S; Khalsa, S. (2014). Yoga-Enhanced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Y-CBT) for Anxiety Management: A Pilot Study. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy (22)4 364-371.DOI: 10.1002/cpp.1902
Lars-GöranÖst (1995). Applied relaxation vs cognitive behavior therapy in the treatment of panic disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy (33)2 145-158. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(94)E0026-F
Telles, S; Nagaratha, R; Nagendra, H. (1994) Breathing through a particular nostril can alter metabolism and autonomic activities. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 38(2) 133-7.
Vorkapic, C; Range, B. (2014). Reducing the Symptomatology of Panic Disorder: The Effects of a Yoga Program Alone and in Combination with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Frontiers in Psychiatry (5)177. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00177