Sitting in my graduate classroom on the Wilfrid Laurier University campus in Waterloo, Ontario, I had my first panic attack. It was 2:11 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in October, 2007. I started to feel tingling in my hands. My breathing became quick and shallow — it felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I looked around the room and all of the colors were vivid and I began to feel dizzy.
Suddenly I had sweat trickling down the back of my neck. My thought was, “Is this a panic attack?” It was now 2:12. Break was scheduled for 2:15. I can wait this out, I thought. And I did.
At 2:15 I left the class, went to a separate room and had my first panic attack. I began to hyperventilate and cry. It was the most overwhelming experience of my life. Thankfully, I was studying and training to be a psychotherapist and knew all the textbook signs of panic disorder.
The next morning, on my drive to my internship with Counseling Services at the University of Waterloo, I had my second panic attack. Two in less than 24 hours. I drove myself to the hospital instead. They put little sticky pads on my body to check my heart. All good. They gave me a prescription for Lorazepam and sent me on my way. Not good.
Thus began the worst and best experience of my life. I was very lucky girl to be training with some exceptional therapists who were more than willing to support me as I worked through my panic disorder. But every day was a struggle. I had classic panic disorder symptoms. I had fear of fear. I was now scared that I would have another panic attack at any moment. I was constantly focused on my ability, or inability, to breathe.
I don’t like taking pills, so I put them in my cute little purse and left them there. I did a major lifestyle overhaul. Reduce coffee — check. Increase exercise — check. Sleep more — check. It helped a little, but I still constantly felt like I was one wrong breath away from another panic attack.
A week later I went to my first class in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Twelve stressed-out university students gathered in a huge hall on campus. On hardwood floors, in dim lighting, we sat in a circle on our round meditation cushions. Eight classes on Wednesdays from 5:00 to 7:30 were taught by two of my colleagues from Counseling Services.
The first class began. We were told we would be learning a breathing meditation. Crap! For the past week, focusing on my breath had been terrifying, exhausting. Now I had to sit there and do nothing but focus on it. My anxiety increased immediately. But I knew the research showed that meditation helps regulate emotions. I also felt safe with my teacher, who was a friend with an office was next to mine.
We practiced the breathing meditation. I survived. It was hard, but I was determined to learn mindfulness. I spent months practicing. Breathing meditations, walking meditations, eating meditations, body scans and yoga. Over time it got easier. My breath became my friend again — my anchor, in fact. Whenever my anxiety mind went to worst-case scenario, I would return to my breath and calm down. Inhale. Exhale.
Since then I've trained in MBSR and now teach it to others. I've made living mindfully my lifestyle. For this reason, developing a panic disorder was the best thing to happen to me.
As a therapist, I've taught people how to use mindfulness for anxiety, depression, stress, relationship problems, eating problems, managing hypertension, improving fertility and more. I truly believe that mindfulness is the closest thing to a magic wand for health and happiness.
If you want to practice a short breathing meditation you can do the following:
1. Place your hand on your chest and your belly — breathe normally.
2. A deep breath is when your belly expands, not your chest.
3. Inhale through your nose, slow, deep breath — stomach expanding.
4. Exhale through your mouth slowly — stomach sinking.
5. Focus on where you feel your breath — nostrils, back of throat or deep in your belly.
6. Your mind will wander — I guarantee. When you notice the wandering, simply return your focus back to your breath.
Congratulations, you've just practiced your first breathing meditation!