Recently, after years of saying that yoga just wasn’t for me, I’ve started attending a calm yoga classes which is helping me to explore in more depth using breath as a way of managing stress and anxiety.
When I was 15 a series of unfortunate events led to an almost-daily routine of an old frenemy, the full-blown panic attack. That feeling of becoming hyper-aware, arm-hair standing on end, chest pounding, waves of nausea and finally the big hyperventilating finale. I remember the point where it can feel like panic attacks have taken full control of your life.
It took time and perseverance to move past it and get to a point where they became less frequent, and then to a stage where I rarely have them at all. It was tough period, and took time and perseverance but some of the things I found most helpful were –
- Not enjoying CBT at all
- Coming to realise that the only person that could really get me through this period was me
- Putting in the hard work so I didn’t need to go to CBT anymore
- Forcing myself to be around my triggers and the things that made me panic, so that I could retrain my brain and remember that THIS WILL NOT KILL ME
- Taking the elements of CBT that rang true for me, and helped, whilst not focusing too hard on the points that I found condescending (“does your tummy hurt in the playground” was a pre-prescribed question I found more irritating than rating my week from 1-10). Sometimes when you have access to talking treatment, it won’t be with someone that “gets you”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have nothing to take away from those sessions
But the number 1 thing that I found worked was being taught some simple breathing patterns that allowed me to focus on something that wasn’t the panic –
- Breathe in through nose – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
- Breathe out through pursed lips – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
- Breathe in through nose – 2, 2, 3, 4, 5
- Breathe out through pursed lips – 2, 2, 3, 4, 5
All the way up until 10… You can close your eyes, focus on your breath and zone out the world – I don’t apply this just for full blown panic attacks, but any moment where I need to find a way to relax. Packed tube carriages, glass lifts, plane take-offs (just a few of my least favourite things..) and can all be made a little less-stressful.
But there’s also science behind it – TIME recently wrote about the scientists at Stanford who discovered why when your breathing slows down, our brain allows itself to maintain a sense of calm as opposed to setting off the arousal centre that tells the brain there’s an emergency when you feel panicked. Even American Vogue have written about Breathing being the new Yoga and the benefits of learning how to breathe, so perhaps it’s something we should all be learning to do in our lives, whether you suffer from panic attacks or are panic free
So what do you have to lose? As soon as you feel that fear creeping up on you, think about your breath, think about filling your lungs. If you’re hyperventilating, it’s natural to struggle at first to put your breath in time with your counts, but if you have a friend get them to help with the counts, and if you’re alone give yourself some tough love. Take a chance to practice your breathing (listen to music if like me you struggle with silence) and see if it might be something that could work for you!