Panic Attacks: The Mindfulness Therapy Approach to Anxiety
Panic attacks and panic disorder affect a growing number of people in the US and Western Europe. Those who do not suffer from panic attacks have a hard time understanding how unbearably painful panic anxiety is for those who experience ongoing panic attacks. To the victims of panic disorder, the experience is very visceral; it is a full-blown fight or flight type reaction that can cause the heart rate to increase dramatically and produce profuse sweating and many other physiological and biochemical changes. Imagine walking along a trail and suddenly encountering a mountain lion; that is how it feels for those suffering from panic anxiety - and sometimes much worse.
Panic anxiety is certainly not just “in the mind” as some people might think, but comes from an integrated reaction that involves both mind and body; each supporting the reactive process. However, ultimately it is what happens in the mind that triggers the emotional and physiological processes that produce a full-blown panic attack. Many panic anxiety sufferers are looking for methods to change the underlying mental process that produces anxiety. Many turn to some form of counseling or talk therapy, others prefer a more direct process of therapy such as CBT or Mindfulness Therapy because these attempt to change the internal mechanism that creates the emotional reaction that then triggers the bodily reactions.
At the core of panic disorders you will inevitably find some form of reactive thinking that triggers the panic attacks, and of course the theory behind CBT is that if you can change these habitual patterns of negative thinking and negative beliefs then you can diffuse the panic attacks. In the Mindfulness Therapy approach, we take this a step further, because we realize that the problem is not simply with the content of the thoughts or beliefs or memories, but with the emotional energy that is infused into these particular thought forms. It is this emotional charge that gives such power to negative thoughts, beliefs or traumatic memories. This is why two people can think the same thought but react completely differently - because the emotional charge is different for different people. Therefore, in Mindfulness Therapy the emphasis is on finding ways to change this emotional energy, allowing it to discharge and resolve itself. Then all that remains is an “empty thought” which ceases to have any particular meaning or power to cause anxiety or suffering.
In Mindfulness Therapy, clients/students learn how to “sit” with their emotions. This means that they learn to hold the emotion in their conscious awareness without getting lost in the story or becoming reactive to the emotion with hatred, resistance or avoidance. This fundamental change in relationship from being consumed by an emotion to one of being able to observe the emotion as an object, which we hold in our awareness is pivotal. We call this the Primary Relationship in Mindfulness Therapy, and this provides the best possible conditions in which the emotional charge can begin to discharge itself. Then the negative thoughts and beliefs begin to lose intensity and lose their power over you.
Find a quiet period during the day and practice sitting with your panic anxiety. It is difficult to do this during a panic attack, but quite possible to do when you are not. What you are learning to do is to meditate on the emotion itself, making it the focus of mindful awareness. In this deliberate way you will begin to develop a relationship with the emotion itself that is not based on reactivity, which only reinforces the problem, but on mindfulness, which creates the ideal inner environment for change. It is through repeatedly returning to the emotion and cultivating this non-reactive relationship that you begin to break free from the habitual patterns of reactivity, becoming stronger and more balanced. But, more than that, this mindfulness meditation on the emotion creates the inner space in which the emotion will begin to change and transform itself.
Peter Strong, PhD, is a Professional Mindfulness Psychotherapist, Online Therapist, Spiritual Teacher, Medical Research Scientist and Author, based in Boulder, Colorado. He was born in the UK and educated at the University of Oxford.