Living with Panic Attacks

By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche • 5 min read

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Storms of Anxiety

In my childhood, I had horrible panic attacks. I don’t know exactly what their true cause was, but I reacted to many ordinary events with terror. For example, I panicked during storms. Where I come from, there is thunder and lightning all summer long, and winter brings snowstorms. One time the gale was so powerful our house shook. As the wind howled, I clung to the house’s central pillar, thinking I had to keep us from blowing away. My mother thought this was very funny. When we went down to Kathmandu Valley, I would have a panic attack when we rode the bumping, lurching buses. I tried many strategies to cope with my fear, but nothing worked. In fact, I learned that aversion only makes anxiety stronger and more solid.

My father taught me that I should make friends with my panic. So, I would try to welcome it. But the truth was, my motivation hadn’t changed. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ll welcome panic, and then maybe it will finally go away.” I was more or less faking acceptance. Even this kind of fake acceptance did help a little. However, it did not fix the problem. I was still anxious about having anxiety attacks, and then I would have one, going around and around in a circle like that.

As a teenager, I lived in a monastery for a three-year retreat. I was hoping that daily life there would be so structured my mind would have no time for panic. But soon enough, my mind was all over the place. My laziness and my anxiety reinforced each other, and my panic got even worse! And I felt bad about that, which of course made it worse still. I often had anxiety attacks during the traditional ritual practices with loud drums and horns. My throat would close up and I’d get dizzy and breathless. Many times I had to leave in the middle of prayers. I felt trapped by my panic.

Breakthrough

With three-quarters of the retreat still to go, I felt I could not go on like that. I decided to really let go of trying to escape my panic, and learn how to use it as support for meditation and awareness. What started to happen after that was that I was able to hold the panic in awareness. The panic was still simmering on the surface, but under that would be awareness. This is because the first step to breaking the cycle of anxiety is to connect to awareness.

After that, I began to really welcome my panic. I still felt the sensations and symptoms of panic, but my mind would be engaged in the process with more interest. Before, I had felt anxiety and resistance rising at the prospect of having a panic attack – what I call “panic of panic.” But now, this added level of anxiety was gone. I was still experiencing the symptoms of panic, but I found it intriguing, even exciting. “Aha! Okay! Here is panic. Hmm…I am observing, watching my heart beat faster. There is tightness here in my chest. I have a headache. I feel dizzy. I feel as if I cannot breathe.” I grew to enjoy the experience of this exploration. So, when anxiety arose, I no longer felt bad. Eventually, my panic and I became very good friends.

“My anxiety accompanied me like a shadow, but when I got to know it through awareness we became very good friends”.

– Mingyur Rinpoche –

MEDITATION FOR ANXIETY

  1. Take a meditation position: keep your spine loosely straight, and let your body relax. If you find that you can’t relax, just allow that to be true — that in itself is to be relaxed! You can gently close your eyes, or leave them slightly open, whichever feels most comfortable.
  2. Direct your attention to your physical sensations. Begin by noticing any sensations in your forehead, and move down through your body. Whatever you feel is fine, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or nothing in particular. Just lightly notice and be aware of it. Then, at your own pace, move your attention throughout your head and face, down through your neck and into the shoulders. Gently notice whatever sensations you encounter, and allow each part of your body to lightly relax as you bring your awareness to it. Move your attention through your arms to your wrists, hands, and fingers. Then move it down your back to your belly, hips, legs, into your feet and all the way down into your toes.
  3. For the rest of the session, be lightly aware of the sensations throughout your entire body. There’s no need to precisely identify, focus hard on them, or change them. Just let them rise naturally to your awareness, and allow yourself to be relaxed and present with them. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions can come and go freely — as long as you remember to notice your physical sensations, your meditation is going fine.
  4. It’s normal to quickly get lost in feelings, thoughts, and so on. But as soon as you notice that you got distracted, you are already back in awareness! Gently return your attention to your breath. Let this process continue over and over, with short intervals of awareness repeated many times — aware, forget, aware, forget — for the duration of your session. Every time you notice that you are distracted, you’re strengthening your meditation practice.
  5. To end the session, open your eyes and just rest for a few moments. Take in the environment around you, the sights and sounds. If you like you can rotate your shoulders, or wiggle your fingers and toes.

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More Resources

Guided Meditation for Panic and Anxiety

Practice together with Mingyur Rinpoche in this guided meditation and learn how to watch your panic.

Joy of Living Online Training

Theory and practice of meditation, step-by-step.

Learn meditation under the skillful guidance of world-renowned teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche at your own pace.

About the Author

By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

In his approach to teaching meditation, Mingyur Rinpoche integrates traditional Buddhist practice and philosophy with the current scientific understanding of the mind and mental health – making the practice of meditation relevant and accessible to students around the world. Mingyur Rinpoche is the author of the best-selling book The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, as well as Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying, and many others.

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