By: Pamela Newton
The first panic attack I remember descended on me when I was 5 years old. I was lying in bed unable to fall asleep, and my mind was cycling through various disaster scenarios. Suddenly, I felt like I couldn't breathe, my heart was racing, and I experienced a crushing fear that threatened to engulf me. These intense bouts of terror plagued me throughout my childhood and adolescence and into my early adulthood, often arising out of nowhere. Alongside panic attacks, I have grappled over the years with acute claustrophobia, a fear of flying, and an array of other free-floating worries that ebb and flow.
Outwardly, I've always appeared as a very together person. When people find out I struggle with anxiety, their reactions are typically, "You?" I've often wondered if those of us with anxiety disorders operate in the most high-functioning ways, since we have siphoned off all our fear and worry and redirected them through a set of very particular channels. In other words, as long as I wasn't in the grips of a panic attack or feeling claustrophobic in an elevator, I was fine. More than fine. But the problem is that you never know when anxiety will seep in through the cracks, and when it does, it overtakes you completely.
When I was 30, I moved abroad for two years and experienced the worst anxiety of my life--panic attacks that seemed to last for days--but I also had the space and time to do some serious work in response to it. That work mainly took the form of some wonderfully healing therapy, a lot of journal writing, and a deepening of my yoga and meditation practice. I had a regular yoga practice before this, but I hadn't delved deeply into the spiritual component of the practice, and meditation made me antsy. All of a sudden, I found that yoga and meditation were an extension of the other therapeutic practices. They offered a safe space in which I could have my feelings and, at the same time, connect to a part of myself that existed apart from the panic. Since then, yoga and meditation have remained my most valuable tools for keeping anxiety at bay and effectively handling it when it arises.
I go to a yoga class two or three times a week, and I find that when I'm the most reluctant to go--when I'm feeling out of sorts or disconnected--I'm the most grateful I went. Because of the intense physical engagement required in class, yoga has an uncanny ability to bring me into my physical self when my mental self is reeling. After an hour and a half of placing my consciousness in my arms, my feet, my spine, I'm able to move away from mental abstractions and come back into the comfort of my gravity-bound self.