Practicing mindfulness has been shown to decrease panic and anxiety.
Some astounding studies (Davidson et al. 2003; Hölzel et al. 2011) show that the way people intentionally shape their internal focus of attention induces a state of brain activation during their mindfulness meditation that increases resiliency and positive responses to stress. It’s said that “neurons that fire together, wire together,” meaning that with repetition, an intentionally created state can become an enduring trait of the individual as reflected in long-term changes in brain function and structure. This is a fundamental property of neuroplasticity—how the brain changes in response to experience.
Mindfulness creates a space between you and what you’re experiencing so you can choose how you respond. Stephen Covey reiterates Victor Frankel’s powerful insight and possibility: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”
When you react in ways that aren’t mindful, they can gradually grow into habits that are detrimental to your health and well-being. Consequently, these patterns of reactivity further your suffering or distress. This is why it’s so important to discern clearly the difference between reacting with unawareness and responding with mindfulness. When you become aware of the present moment, you gain access to resources you may not have had before. You may not be able to change a situation, but you can mindfully change your response to it. You can choose a more constructive and productive way of dealing with stress rather than a counterproductive or even destructive way of dealing with it.
Remember, there is no other place to go, nothing else you need to do, and no one you have to be right now.
In regard to panic, when you become mindful that you are in a state of panic, you can begin to respond to it in a way that lessens its intensity rather than inflaming or fueling it. As your practice of mindfulness deepens, you can gradually prevent panic attacks from even occurring and begin to feel much more deeply at ease within yourself and in the world.
Take It Slow
So that you feel safe, before you begin, we’d like to offer some gentle suggestions regarding meditation and other practices. Please tread lightly. Meditations, and other practices are meant not to create more panic or pressure in your life but as a way to help you practice engaging with panic in safe and relatively comfortable surroundings. Know that you can stop at any time. Please take care of yourself in the best way you need to.
Remember: easy does it; one step at a time. Slowly and gradually you can learn to live with more ease.
The Importance of Mindful Breathing
Mindful breathing is part of the foundation of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and often our first recommendation to anyone living with the challenges of panic. It involves diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, also known as belly breathing, which is very helpful in calming the body because it’s the way that you naturally breathe when asleep or relaxed.
Explore your breath:
- Take a moment right now to be mindful of your breath. Gently place your hands on your belly.
- Breathe normally and naturally. When you breathe in, simply be aware that you’re breathing in; when you breathe out, be aware that you’re breathing out.
- Feel your belly rise and fall with your breath. Now take two more mindful breaths and then continue reading.
The reason why diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is an “anti-panic/anxiety” breath is because it helps regulate irregular breathing patterns fairly quickly. Often when you feel panicked, your breathing will become rapid, irregular, and shallow. You’ll tend to breathe mostly in your chest and neck. When you shift to diaphragmatic breathing, this will help regulate the breath so you can begin to feel more balanced and relaxed.
Foundational Practice: Mindful Breathing
Find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed. Turn off your phone and any other devices that might take you away from this special time that you’re giving yourself. Assume a posture in which you can be comfortable and alert, whether sitting in a chair or on a cushion or lying down.
You can learn mindful breathing by following the script below, pausing briefly after each paragraph. Aim for a total time of at least five minutes.
- Appreciate Your Time. Take a few moments to congratulate yourself that you are taking some time for meditation.
- Become aware of your breath. Now bring awareness to the breath in the abdomen or belly, breathing normally and naturally.
- Stay with your breath. As you breathe in, be aware of breathing in; as you breathe out, be aware of breathing out. If it is helpful, place your hands on your belly to feel it expand with each inhalation and contract with each exhalation. Simply maintaining this awareness of the breath, breathing in and breathing out. If you are unable to feel the breath in your belly, find some other way—place your hands on your chest, or feel the movement of air in and out of your nostrils.
- Just be. There’s no need to visualize, count, or figure out the breath. Just being mindful of breathing in and out. Without judgment, just watching, feeling, experiencing the breath as it ebbs and flows. There’s no place to go and nothing else to do. Just being in the here and now, mindful of your breathing, living life one inhalation and one exhalation at a time.
- Feel what your body is doing naturally. As you breathe in, feel the abdomen or belly expand or rise like a balloon inflating, then feel it receding or deflating or falling on the exhalation. Just riding the waves of the breath, moment by moment, breathing in and out.
- Acknowledge your wandering mind. From time to time, you may notice that your attention has wandered from the breath. When you notice this, just acknowledge that your mind wandered and acknowledge where it went, and then bring your attention gently back to the breath.
- Be where you are. Remember, there is no other place to go, nothing else you need to do, and no one you have to be right now. Just breathing in and breathing out. Breathing normally and naturally, without manipulating the breath in any way, just being aware of the breath as it comes and goes.
- Acknowledge your time. As you come to the end of this meditation, congratulate yourself that you took this time to be present and that you are directly cultivating inner resources for healing and well-being. Let us take a moment to end this meditation with the wish “May all beings be at peace.”
How to Practice Mindful Breathing
Give yourself the gift of formally practicing this meditation every day, even for a short period of time. It might be helpful to start off practicing mindful breathing for five minutes once a day and build it up from there. Maybe you’ll find that you can add a second or even a third five-minute session, practicing mindful breathing at different times of your day. You can get additional benefit if you gradually extend your mindful breathing to ten, fifteen, twenty, or even thirty minutes at least once a day. Let this be a part of your practice of mindfulness that you look forward to doing, a special time for you to center yourself and “return home” to your being. Feel free to use an alarm clock or timer; you can download free meditation timers from the Insight Meditation Center that feature a pleasant sound.
Like other meditations, mindful breathing can be incorporated into your daily activities too. As far as where to practice informally, just about anywhere works. Take a few minutes at home, at work, at the doctor’s office, at the bus stop, or even while waiting in line to bring a little mindful breathing into your life. You can also make it a habit to take a few mindful breaths right after you wake up, when you take a morning break, at lunchtime, in the afternoon, at night, or right before you go to sleep. Once you’ve practiced mindful breathing at these times, you can experiment with using it when you’re feeling some angst, to help you calm the rush of panic in your body.
This article was adapted from Calming the Rush of Panic, by Bob Stahl PhD, Wendy Millstine NC.
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