Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Finding the path through panic and depression


It is decades since I have had a panic attack but anyone who has experienced them always remembers the experience and has deep sympathy for those who encounter them; or rather, are called  into or captured by those realms.

What I took time to learn was that the panic attacks, like the depression, anxiety and fear, all had purpose and meaning and if they were approached as a guide, instead of as an enemy, and embraced with practical pragmatism, as well as courageous curiosity, the time would pass and they would become a thing of the past.

The modern medical approach to such experiences is to drug them away. That can certainly be useful for a couple of months to get you over the hump but it is no cure and in fact just delays the changing and the healing which the psyche is demanding and which is expressed through such symptoms. I was not aware of Homeopathy when I was experiencing panic and depression, but, if I had known then what I know now, I would have made use of it.

Having said that, there is no doubt that being forced to find my way through has taught me valuable things. I would not take medication because I knew enough about the psyche and psychology to know that it could only ever be a ‘bandaid’ and temporary and so I had no choice but to do the ‘hard yards.’ I am sure, doing it ‘hard’ gave me greater confidence and trust in myself and it certainly ensured that I developed practical ways of dealing with or managing being me.

There is no doubt that Homeopathy can have a profound and lasting balancing and healing effect because it acts on the body to heal at all levels – emotional, psychological, physiological and spiritual – but, I also believe that facing the lessons through the worst of it, is a crucial part of the healing process and invaluable in terms of coming to know one’s self.

We are all different and no experience will ever be exactly like that of someone else, but I do know what it is like to have panic attacks which can last minutes or hours. I know what it is like to wake up in the morning and to be engulfed in a wave of terror which makes putting one foot out of bed almost impossible.  I know what it is like to be engulfed in cold fear at the thought of going to work, going shopping, seeing people. But I did find ways to work with them and through them to reach a point where I never had another one again.

They happen for a reason of course and ultimately, to move beyond both, it is usually important to do the inner work, but there are practical management techniques which can help.

The first thing I realised, which got me onto more stable ground, was that it was not so much the panic attack which was the problem but the fear of having one and the fear of experiencing one. The fear of having one can trigger them, because you are already in a state of high alert and heightened tension, and the fear as one experiences, exacerbates.

The goal is to diminish or remove the fear – when I reached that point, and it did not take too long, I never had another one. And that was 30 years ago.

The second thing I realised was that in order to reduce the fear of having one, I needed to find meaning in it and to understand the physiology. A panic attack is something sourced in our primal or reptilian brain, the Fright, Fight, Flight response. Fear triggers it, conscious or unconscious, and then our adrenal system gets ready to fight and to help us run away, but of course there is no-one or nothing to fight and sometimes nowhere to run. The desire to run, to escape, increases the sense of panic.
The feelings are exactly the same that one would experience confronting a charging lion – but what messes with our heads is that we are feeling this way while sorting the washing or driving a car.

Our body is having a major physiological reaction and we are not doing what it needs, which is either to walk for a bit or to even run or jog; or, if we cannot, to trust the process as an experience of feeling – releasing the energy. I know, the thought of standing or sitting still and allowing that feeling to wash over you where you feel you might collapse, die or lose complete control is terrifying…. but when you do it, you realise that it does pass.

I remember reading that the physiological response to fear is the same as that for excitement – the difference being how we interpret it. People who bungy jump or parachute, experience what we call panic attacks, but they enjoy the sensation and so there is no fear – just the massive rush of energy and its release. It helped me to think of this.

The other thing which helped me was to think – fine, if I fall on the floor, frothing at the mouth, scream hysterically, piss or shit myself, die of a heart attack, who gives a fuck……at some point I will just pick myself up and get on with it. And the fact is that with panic attacks you don’t do any of that …. and you know what, a lot of the time no-one else is even aware of the terror and turmoil inside. I remember years after the worst of my time, talking to people, probably acquaintances more than friends, about my experience and they were astonished to believe a. that I reacted like that, and b. that I hid it so well.

As a reformed ‘control junkie’ who relapses regularly, :) I would also say that panic attacks usually happen to those who feel a need to be in control – it is if you like the ultimate loss of control – well, it isn’t, but it sure as hell feels like it.
I also found that if I saw the panic attack as an expression, like weeping or sobbing, another skill I mastered, including doing it in front of others – Quelle Horreur – and as a releasing of feelings, emotions, physiological responses I did not understand, it also helped.

My other approach, combined with the rest, was to tell myself that I would allow the feelings of panic to be felt for five minutes, just sitting or standing with them – this is of course best done at home where you can set a timer – and then, bring the cerebral into it and observe what is happening. Make notes even. What are you feeling? Where are you feeling it? What images come to mind – what thoughts – write it all down. The process of observing detaches you from the feelings but, having honoured them initially, they won’t mind.

Seeing the panic attacks as your psyche trying to communicate with you – as a guide – also gives the experience meaning and when we can find meaning we feel calmer. Panic attacks terrify because we cannot control them, we don’t understand why they happen, and we fear we will die, lose control or lose our minds.

We are all different but the goal was to remove the Fear factor from the panic attack. And I found, once I stopped fearing them I stopped having them. In time I did the same thing with depression and got the same result. From decades, until my late thirties, when depression would swallow me up for weeks and months at a time, into the darkest most horrible of places, I reached a place where depression would come to visit and I would welcome it and it would stay for perhaps hours or a day…. no more.

My journey was a long one, beginning in a place where I feared the sort of insanity which swallowed my mother, but taking me to an understanding of myself and the psyche which has enriched my life. I read a lot and found therapists less useful than one might hope; psychiatrists not much use at all because they pretty much do drugs which can certainly help get over a crisis period of a few months but are not a long-term answer and sought the support of others who had been there. Books were my companions, guides, angels and friends and the ‘right one’ would appear just when I needed it.

It’s a bit like being an 18th century explorer in deepest Africa where there is not much of a map, most people have never been there, you don’t know what you will find, or if you will survive.

I guess I am just saying, for anyone who finds themselves in this place, it is worth it, there is a point and a purpose to it, and you will find your way through it. And, while I was reluctant to talk too much about my psychological state for some years  when I did, I was surprised at how many people had experienced similar things.It is often shame and embarrassment which keeps us silent and yet both of those things are sourced in ego and have no place in Soul work. For it is soul work. Only by sharing can you bring insight, comfort and companionship to others who might need it.

It is the leap of the Fool, as the Tarot Deck, describes, into an unknown which is the beginning of an adventure which leads you on – life, love, light and understanding. Such experiences are a calling to Self and at the end of the day, more rewarding than most might imagine.


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