Anxiety can be crippling. All of us deal with varying levels of stress — it's an evolutionary trait that helped us remain cognizant of the world's potential dangers. Given that we now have few of the survival concerns of our ancestors, however, we've taken anxiety to an entirely new level.
I've been hospitalized twice for panic attacks: my first at 16, when I was certain I was having a heart attack, and again 12 years later, when I had the same feeling. Every time you have a full-blown episode, you're certain a heart attack is occurring, even though you know better. When your flight-or-fight system is activated, logic has no say.
While we all have different emotional triggers, the chemistry is the same: your amygdala alarms your hypothalamus and sympathetic nervous system something's gone awry; a flood of adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine respond to the hypothalamus's distress signal; your heart jumps into your throat, you fingertips tingle and sweat, your thoughts assault you; in a chain reaction that solidifies the connection of the trigger to the attack, your amygdala demands that your hippocampus stores the event for future recall.
My anxiety hit a peak in my early thirties when I ended up blacking out and landing on some poor woman's table at Caravan of Dreams in the East Village. I woke up in her lap, a dozen concerned diners surrounding me, a few of them certain alcohol was the culprit. (An unfortunate consequence of anxiety disorder is that people assume you're inebriated; trying to explain while having an attack is nearly impossible.)
The following day, I nearly passed out again at the Fulton Street subway station. For many months after, I couldn't take that train, as each time I walked down that long stairwell things would get fuzzy. Instead of confronting the issue, I did what many who suffer from this disease do: walked to the City Hall station to catch the train.
I began taking Xanax, which, for a few weeks, helped. But I knew that this was not a long-term solution. I'm not against pills or "Western" medicine; it always concerns me when people rail against pharmaceuticals as if they have no use whatsoever. The drug helped for a bit, though I knew I couldn't depend on it. So I designed my own escape when anxiety grew: pranayama (predominantly alternate nostril breathing) and Viparita Karani, or legs-up-the-wall pose, alleviated the symptoms.
Over the years, my daytime attacks lessened, though they would emerge at night, usually within an hour of falling asleep. I relied on slow, deep breathing and placing my legs up on two pillows to calm my nervous system. For the most part, I would be asleep again within 20 minutes, though some nights it could be an hour or two.
This August I finally dedicated myself to a daily meditation practice, in the Shambhala mindfulness tradition. I did so to deal with longstanding emotional triggers that needed attending, though one of the unintended benefits has been a lack of panic attacks, daytime or night. In fact, I noticed how powerful sitting for 15-20 minutes a day could be the other day in a seemingly unrelated activity: swimming.
Water has always sparked fear for me, even though I love being in it. I didn't learn how to swim until high school; within two years, I was a lifeguard, and spent six years in that summertime profession. Anyone who's dealt with panic knows that sense of drowning. Whenever I swam distances, that rush of chemicals ensued.
I get into the pool at least twice a week now — 15 laps before I practice or teach yoga. My pace has been the same for years: three laps, 30-second break, three laps. This was usually the limit before my breath began to shorten. Last week I surprised myself by going five before needing a break, attributing it to the pre-swim espresso.
This week something odd happened; after three laps, after five, I was fine. I completed all fifteen without stopping, no panic at any point.
In the Shambhala tradition of meditation, you actively "make friends" with your fears. The particular meditation I practice involves diving into whatever emotional issues I'm dealing with at that moment. Instead of distracting myself or avoiding challenging situations, when I can sit still with the emotion long enough tension dissolves, much like a tight muscle slowly eases during a stretch. And like in physical yoga, the benefits last well beyond the time spent in the posture. For me, what was once a crippling condition has become a manageable situation.