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How I Overcame a Panic Disorder

Some of the six million people in America who suffer from a panic disorder don't even know they're panicking. They think they're dying.
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Some of the six million people in America who suffer from a panic disorder don't even know they're panicking.

They think they're dying.

I was a 15-year-old waitress going about my business when I felt a strange, flickering sensation in the center of my chest. My lungs tightened, my throat closed up, my head started spinning and my heart began to pound.

I was having a panic attack.

But 40 years ago, that phrase hadn't even been invented. Now people use it to describe anything from a major health crisis to the inability to buy their favorite shoes at a sample sale. To those of us who suffer from terrifying physical symptoms, that both minimizes our experience and confuses us. Is what we are suffering from real? Is panic a figment of our imagination?

I'm not a doctor, and I don't even play one on TV. I'm not a therapist, counselor or specialist in anxiety.

But what I am is a specialist in the study of my own brain over the last few years. And the advice I'm giving to people who've emailed me with the most poignant, moving stories of their own panic is simple: The most important step in dealing with panic attacks is to understand what a panic attack is. Once you put your own suffering in context, you won't blame yourself for feeling mentally ill or weak, as I did for so many years.

Belleruth Naparstek is a psychologist and pioneer in the field of guided imagery, which she describes as: "A deliberate day dream that sends appealing messages in an immersive, healing way, straight into the primitive channels of the brain." While I was flying across the country on an extended book tour, trying not to panic, I'd listen to Belleruth's CDs on airplanes. I'd fall asleep listening to them in hotel rooms. I was one of the people Belleruth describes as not having the "oomph to do mindfulness meditation," but I trusted her to transport me to a safe, calm place I wanted to access over and over again. In fact, I called her my gateway drug, and I became hooked on the feeling that I could calm myself down.

Belleruth feels that guided imagery can heal people in ways that talk therapy and drugs can't. Her imagery did not replace the anti-anxiety medication I was taking, but I experienced, for the first time, moments when I felt my body slowing itself down and beginning to self-regulate. In fact, all that's required to reverse panic, according to Belleruth, is to learn self-regulation of any sort, such as breath work, guided imagery or meditation.

"Panic is a relatively simple condition," she told me. "It's essentially an overactive survival response."

And that phrase empowered me.

I knew just enough about my brain to realize that my fight or flight response was out of whack. I knew just enough about my body to realize that caffeine, alcohol and sugar could trigger panic.

And now a professional was telling me that my body really and truly did want to stay alive. It was simply fighting too hard to do that.

The six million people in America who suffer from panic disorders and the millions more who suffer from a variety of anxiety disorders should know that they are survivors. Perhaps over-survivors.

When we blame ourselves for being weak, morally deficient or terrifyingly different from the rest of the world, as I did for many years, we're programming our brains and bodies to feel out of control. And when we begin to assert a tiny amount of control over our emotions, brains and physical responses to stress, we can strengthen our mind-body connection and our self-confidence as well.

Panic is a syndrome, and it comes from a variety of factors -- biological, psychological and physiological. Each person has to come to their own understanding as to how and why they panic.

I spent a year learning how to meditate, which I believe is an excellent form of self-regulation. I studied with some of the finest Buddhist teachers and rabbis I could find. While I'm aware of how little control I have over many world events, I've been empowered through my practice to learn that feelings and thoughts of all kinds come and go.

Including my fear of an imminent panic attack.

Through therapies like EMDR and Somatic Experience, I've learned to let go of the terrifying sensations that used to haunt me. I've replaced them with a confidence in my own strength that I never could have imagined.

My recovery and healing from a panic disorder that haunted me for 40 years was not quick, smooth or easy.

"When we do this work together slowly, it's deeper and more solidified," my EMDR therapist told me.

I hope that the lessons I've learned might facilitate some deep, slow, changes for readers interested in learning about the techniques, treatments and teachers who healed me.

Priscilla Warner co-authored The New York Times bestseller "The Faith Club." Her new memoir, "Learning to Breathe -- My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life", is published by Free Press. Follow her on twitter on facebook or on her website.