It was a dark and stormy night (it really was, okay, I’m not making this shit up) and I was walking to my very first college exam. I was walking through the rain to my testing room, water up to my ankles, my feet soaked, but all I could think about was the difference between Atomic Number and Mass Number and all the periodic table trends that we had been learning about in class. I’m pretty good at chemistry and I was pretty confident that I understood the material, but I couldn’t help but think about how this was my first college exam and it was the first time I ever did something that would be worth 30% of my final grade!
I waded through the rain and the flooded roads, got to the building, saw some of my friends, wished them good luck, and found my seat to begin the exam. Then the proctor said, “you may begin,” and the world went hazy. As soon as I opened that exam, my heart began racing at 3 times speed, my vision went blurry and my head started pounding. My breathing rate increased, and I could not focus in the slightest. I realized I was having what I thought was a panic attack. I didn’t know what to do, I’d never experienced something like that before. Like a vicious circle, the inevitable panicking about the panic attack only made things worse. I looked around and saw everyone else peacefully taking their tests and I envied them. Eventually I was able to control myself, calm my breathing and begin the test but it took a good amount of testing time away from me. The first couple questions were hard to read, and I couldn’t concentrate well but eventually I got into the test and forgot all about my panic. I even ended up getting an A on the test.
In a 2015 study by the American College Health Association, it was found that 57.7% of college students experience overwhelming anxiety, 17.3% were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and 8.7% had panic attacks (Morris, 2016). I tell you this to let you know that you are not alone, and there are other people going through what you are going through. So, talk about your feelings and let others know what you’re going through. They may, to your surprise, understand what you’re feeling and be able to offer some practical ways to help.
Panic attacks, as defined by the Mayo Clinic are “sudden episode[s] of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause” and they can make the victim feel as if they are “having a heart attack or even dying.” The physical symptoms of panic attacks include accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling, shaking, chills, hot flashes, chest pain, headache, dizziness, numbness and more. One or two panic attacks in one’s lifetime is completely normal but having more frequent panic attacks or panic attacks that occur unexpectedly and for prolonged periods of times may be signs of panic disorder (Mayo Clinic, 2018).
An anxiety attack, on the other hand, involves all of the same physical symptoms of a panic attack but it comes on more gradually and is usually in direct response to a stressful situation or event. Anxiety attacks involve the feelings of distress, worry, and restlessness, and less of the feelings of dying and like you are detached from the world as panic attacks give you (Vandergriendt, 2019). To clarify, panic attacks are more random and occur out of the blue, while anxiety attacks are a result of your mind fixating on a specific stressor so much that we form a negative physical reaction. I realize today that I had an anxiety attack during that chemistry exam and not a panic attack, but either way the breathing meditation that I am about to explain will help in both situations.
One wonderful type of meditation that may help with panic and anxiety attacks is referred to as Breath Counting Meditation, or BCM for short. BCM is great because it can be practiced anywhere and it is especially helpful while one is experiencing a panic attack because it forces the meditator to calm their breathing, which directly reverses one of the symptoms of a panic attack. One way to perform BCM is to close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath, counting each exhalation. Focus on how your body feels as your breath; the movement of your chest up and down, the feeling of your nostrils flaring as you inhale, the fresh air entering your nose, and the warm breath leaving your mouth. Continue counting the breath in intervals of 10, cycling back to 1 every time you count 10 breaths until your exhale becomes longer than your inhale. This will inherently relax your body without any other effort (Yoo et al., 2015).
A 2015 Korean study took 2 individuals of differing backgrounds who were both struggling with anxiety and panic attacks and had them practice BCM every night for 10 minutes before falling asleep. What they found was that BCM significantly reduced the anxiety levels of these patients and that this form of meditation can be used for counteracting panic attacks appearing in clinical anxiety disorder (Yoo et al.,2015).
I have never practiced that exact form of BCM, but I have over the years kind of intuitively developed a similar form of meditation that I have found helpful to me personally when I am having anxiety attacks. What I do is; I close my eyes and inhale for a count of 5 seconds, hold that inhale for 10 seconds and finally exhale for another 10 seconds. I do that for 3-5 breaths and I feel as if it acts as a reset button that helps me regain my bearings and clear my mind so that I can realize that everything is okay and whatever I’m feeling anxious about is not really all that dangerous.
I looked up this method and lo and behold, it's a real thing developed by Dr. Andrew Weil and is known as the 4-7-8 breath (okay I was wrong about the official numbers of seconds to breath, I’m sorry okay). According to Child and Family Psychology Services this method includes the following:
Sounds pretty similar to what I said I do, doesn’t it? I think I’m ready to be a psychologist! Haha nope just kidding! Anyways, as I found also this technique has been shown to help interrupt the panic attack cycle before it gets out of control (Robert, 2019).
Well there you have it 2 breathing meditation techniques that can help combat the physical effects of both panic and anxiety attacks. I know this was a longer blog post than usual but that is because this is a topic that is very important to me! Please please please remember that you are not alone in your fight with anxiety, panic attacks, or similar issues, so don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends, loved ones, or professionals if you ever need someone to talk to or are just looking for help. It does not make you any weaker to ask for help, in fact I believe it is one of the strongest things you can do. Even stronger than benching 4 plates!!
Morris, Marcia. “‘Mom, I'mHaving a Panic Attack.’” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 26 Mar.2016, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog
“Panic Attacks and PanicDisorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education andResearch, 4 May 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021.
Robert, Marc A. “How toCalm Yourself During a Panic Attack.” Child & Family PsychologicalServices, 24 Oct. 2019, www.cfpsych.org/blog/how-to-calm-yourself-during-a-panic-attack/.
Vandergriendt, Carly.“What's the Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Anxiety Attack?” Edited byJanet Brito, Healthline, Healthline Media, 30 Sept. 2019, www.healthline.com/health/panic-attack-vs-anxiety-attack.
Yoo, Song-Wun, et al.“Report on Two Cases of Treatment of Anxiety Disorder with Panic Attacks-on theBasis of Breath-Counting Meditation (Anapanasati).” Journal of OrientalNeuropsychiatry, vol. 26, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–10., doi:10.7231/jon.2015.26.1.001.
A special thank you to all my friends and family who have not only supported me on my journey but have helped along the way. None of this would be possible without them. Remember to take time to appreciate those in your lives!
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