Panic attacks: an introduction

Those of us who have experienced a panic attack know how frightening it can be. The symptoms (e.g shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, dizziness) can feel so severe that they can be mistaken for a heart attack or serious illness (or even imminent death). Having one panic attack can often lead to worry about it happening again.

Because these symptoms feel so bad, it can be hard to see how they could be a product of an emotional state, anxiety !! Welcome to the body’s alarm system!!!

When the body perceives danger/threat it goes into self-protection mode. Signals are sent to the fear centres in the brain and the result?? the body gets itself ready to deal with the perceived threat. How? It gets the body ready to fight the attacker or run away (“fight or flight”), by speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing other autonomic nervous functions- all to give the body a burst of energy and strength.

Now, what has this got to do with panic attacks? If we experience the above symptoms, in the absence of an identifiable threat (and they feel like they’re coming out of the blue) we may misinterpret these symptoms to be a sign of a serious illness/ imminent death. If we do this, then we will fear the symptoms themselves. If we fear the symptoms, then every time we experience them, the body’s alarm system gets activated, and we experience the symptoms as even more severe. This is what happens in a panic attack!!

As soon as we start to recognize and truly believe that the symptoms are an anxiety response, this should prevent them from escalating into a panic attack. There are lots of things we can do to help this process along. 1) changing our thought process is essential. If we can remind ourselves that these symptoms are an anxiety response and not a sign of anything serious/sinister, the symptoms should reduce 2) deep breathing (look up deep belly breathing on youtube) is incredibly effective for slowing breathing down and reducing the exacerbation of symptoms that often occurs during a panic attack).

Panic attacks are among the most treatable of mental health issues. See the links below to learn more about how you can help yourself, and please share with others who could benefit. If you have tried the suggestions in this blog post but would like additional help, please feel free to contact me for more information or to arrange a free consultation.

https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Panic
https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/panic.htm (Illustration by Gemma Corell)
(* You should always get any medical symptoms you are worried about checked out by your GP)

Another side to mental health

There’s a lot of bad press around mental health. What if I was to suggest that for some people the experience of a mental health ‘crisis’ ‘episode’ or ‘breakdown’ (terms that many people I have seen used to refer to their experience), is the very thing needed to take us to a new, higher level of thinking and being?

Throughout my career and in my personal life (both myself and close friends), I have seen adversity and challenge, resulting in symptoms that would be described as anxiety and depression, have been the crucial turning point in someone’s life.
It has been like an alarm bell signaling ‘something needs to change in my life’. Many people feel forced to stop in their tracks immediately and take a long hard look at everything from their work-life balance to relationships they have in their lives, to the relationship they have with themselves.

And at the end of it, they report:

  • a new appreciation for life
  • more meaningful relationships
  • deeper empathy for others’ suffering
  • a sense of feeling better prepared to deal with whatever life brings.

I wonder if any of you can relate to the growth that comes from struggle? I certainly can.

A closer look at Simran and Mindfulness

This post addresses a question that comes up frequently and also came up at the recent Khalsa family retreat that I attended.

‘How do Simran and mindfulness differ?’

Simran, meditation, anything that involves turning inward is such a personal experience. So I am only talking from my own experience and understandings of what it means to do Simran, and what it means to practice mindfulness. I am definitely not an expert in either.

Mindfulness
My understanding is that mindfulness is an approach that helps us to gather our attention and gives us a choice about where we direct that attention. Through bringing our attention back to the breath or the body or a mantra, again and again, we are training our mind to be able to filter out unwanted thoughts/ sensations. But the key thing about mindfulness is that it is practiced without a goal, i.e of improving, changing or fixing something. It is about fully accepting what is. Practitioners find this acceptance reduces suffering because you are no longer resisting anything.

Simran
My understanding is that doing Simran is embedded in a theory about the universe, our part in it, The Creator and our purpose. So the practice of Simran is purposeful and has an end goal, which my understanding is to purify the mind so that we can experience the sound (Naam) and image of Vaheguru (Parkash), And merge with Vaheguru while we are living and merge with Him eternally after death.
So my understanding is that doing Simran may be similar in terms of the process of bringing one’s attention to a kind of single-mindedness (which automatically reduces suffering) but is different in that the process of Simran builds a relationship between the reciter and Vaheguru, with the end goal being to merge with Him.

I appreciate that this is a very simplistic look at both mindfulness and Simran. I would love to hear your own thoughts/understandings. Please comment or send me a message if you have anything to add/share.

Meditation

There is such a buzz around meditation at the moment. People are experiencing real tangible benefits to their emotional health from devoting even a small amount of time (say 10mins) to meditation each day.

Background
One popular form of meditation is known as mindfulness. This was popularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a man who spent time learning meditation from Buddhist teachers. He is said to have ‘taken Buddhism out’ of the practice to allow people who are not religious to experience its benefits.

What is it?
Mindfulness meditation means paying attention on purpose to the present moment. It aims to help gather scattered attention by focusing one’s attention on the breath, the body, or a mantra. This helps us to become aware of how the mind is drawn away from the present moment and encourages us to gently bring our attention back to the here and now. Being unable to take shift our attention from difficult thoughts and feelings is said to be the cause of suffering.

The benefits
Studies show benefits for stress, anxiety, sleep, focus, and even immune system functioning. Also- the brains of those who meditate daily change over time. The parts of the brain responsible for fight/flight (amygdala) show less activity and those areas responsible for higher-order brain functions like concentration and decision making show more activity.

Where do you start?
So..if your sold, you can start meditating straight away. There are some great Apps such as HEADSPACE which has a 10-day free trial, the mindfulness app, and CALM has a 1 day free app. There are lots of YouTube videos explaining mindfulness in more depth but I’ve found that the more you can actually DO, the more you will learn about the benefits. Would love to hear about your experiences.

Look out for part 2 of this article where I will be sharing my thoughts on how mindfulness relates to the Sikh practice of Simran (This question comes up a lot in the Sikh community).

Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness

Asking for help can make us feel vulnerable, needy and insecure, but let’s take a look at what it takes to ask for help:

  • Self-awareness- you need to know there a problem in order to do something about it.
  • Trust- trust in others and belief in the power of relationships- a very healthy psychological trait
  • Bravery- willingness to be vulnerable, to sit with and talk through emotional distress.

Seeking help be it through talking to a close friend/family member, finding self -help resources online, or seeking professional help takes a great deal of strength and can be life-changing.