How I Learned to Treat My Panic Attacks and Anxiety With Mindfulness

How I Learned to Treat My Panic Attacks and Anxiety With Mindfulness

mindfulness meditation for anxiety

The first serious panic attack I can remember having — not “I’m a little nervous” but “My heart is exploding through my chest and I might possibly die” — was at 22.

I was in a staff meeting at my job editing test preparation materials, where I spent most of my time trying to sneak subversive feminist artists into the curriculum while also remembering that you can’t mention dinosaurs or feature talking animals in any of the Texas books. That, and reading Television Without Pity recaps.

As I sat in this glass conference room surrounded by my bosses and co-workers, my heart started to flutter in my chest and my airways constricted until I couldn’t catch my breath. It felt kind of like the first time I fell flat on my back from doing a gymnastics trick on the monkey bars. Suddenly, my chest felt tight and I was struggling for air.

It probably lasted less than 10 minutes, but minutes of gripping horror, in which I was pretty sure I was having a heart attack. It never occurred to me that what I was feeling was panic. It felt legitimately like a medical emergency, compounded by the fact that I was trying to appear normal to everyone around me. Apparently I would rather quietly die in my rolling chair than disrupt a meeting.

I now recognize this as a severe but classic panic attack. They’re very physical for me — I can’t breathe, my chest feels constricted, and the anxiety seems to actually explode through my body like a bomb going off.

I used to get them a lot when I was still drinking, because only a depressed, anxiety-ridden alcoholic would think that consuming large quantities of a depressant was going to improve her mental state. Instead, my body chemistry went haywire, manufacturing buckets of seemingly contextless panic.

Now that I take medication and go to therapy regularly, my anxiety and depression are much better managed, but I will probably always have to deal with them to some extent.

In the past year or so, I’ve been treating my anxiety with acupuncture, which has been extremely effective, but since I ran through my insurance-covered sessions, I haven’t been able to afford it regularly and some of my old issues are coming back up.

I’ve been throwing all my tricks at the problem, but nothing seems to help — not the anti-anxiety medication I take daily, not herbal remedies like Valerian root, not exercise or Kava tea or vitamin B-12.

So when I got the chance to check out newly opened Manhattan meditation studio MNDFL, I was eager to give it a try.

MNDFL is intended to be sort of a “meditation university,” where you can try classes in a bunch of different meditation traditions, from Tibetan to Kundalini, find out what you really connect with and then “go deep.” Their 30 or 45-minute classes start at $10 and the list includes such offerings as Mindful Heart (a loving practice with a focus on increasing kindness and empathy toward others), Mindful Sleep (for insomnia), Mindful Sound (for dealing with that construction going on outside your window), Mindful Intention (meditation on a goal or quality you want to embody that day) and Mindful Emotions (for those experiencing difficult feelings).

Each class begins with a few minutes of introduction, a guided practice, and then a Q&A or debrief session to discuss the experience.

I’ve been an on-again off-again meditator for years. When I’ve had a good, steady practice, meditation has been one of the most effective tricks in my recovery arsenal. But for some reason, it’s really hard to make yourself do things that are good for you and I forget about meditation for months at a time.

I’ve found all of the above, to be true. When I am meditating regularly, I feel more removed from difficult emotions and situations — I can sort of hang back and observe them without losing my core sense of ~inner peace~. It’s like being softly insulated from the world by a Snuggie or a pillow fort. A pillow fort your brain makes.

And it’s not just new-age conjecture — the benefits of meditation have been backed up by scientific research, which has repeatedly shown that regular meditation actually changes the topography of the brain, reducing the reactivity in the fear centers and increasing neuron density in the areas that regulate emotions. This Harvard study is one of many that draws similar conclusions.

While it may come dressed in the trappings of a barefoot hippie, meditation is actually a really practical tool for stress management and overall wellness. Which is probably why corporations like General Mills, which has meditation rooms in every building, are embracing its usefulness in stressful office cultures. Even the military is exploring the benefits of meditation for soldiers and veterans.

There are lots of different schools of meditation, but both Dan and Lodro, the teacher of my first class of the day, Mindful 101, and co-owner of MNDFL, espouse the same basic meditation technique I learned.

This method is extremely simple: Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and concentrate on your breath. When you find that your mind has wandered — when you’re scripting a conversation with someone in your head or mentally scanning your to-do list — you gently tell yourself “Thinking” and return your focus to your breath.

This is the same basic technique I’ve used at home for free, so I ask Lodro what the benefit is to a guided meditation. While he’s in support of self-guided practice and using apps like Headspace to meditate at home, he points out the value of both having a space that’s removed from your daily life, phone, computer, cat, etc. and having a community to practice with.

Meditating with a group not only gives a shared sense of purpose, it also holds you accountable for say, meditating for a full 15 minutes instead of getting bored and getting up after 10 or when you hear your email ding with a new message.

He compares a meditation instructor to a guitar instructor — someone actually leading you through the practice who can give you feedback and answer questions when you “forget where to put your fingers for a chord.”

The space is beautiful, with natural light streaming in through the skylight, and after meditating for 15 minutes with my classmates, I do feel a higher quality of meditation that I attribute to the group setting. (In my first class, I am coincidentally the only participant not wearing some shade of gray, but other than that I feel very comfortable with my fellow meditators.)

You can meditate in any position where you’re comfortable and undistracted. We sit straight on cushions, elongating our spines, relaxing our back and shoulders, with palms face down on our knees and chins tucked in lightly. Letting your mouth hang open a bit to relax your jaw is key; I often realize halfway through a meditation that every part of my body is relaxed except my face, which I’m still holding tight.

Lodro, who is the author of five books on meditation and talks about using meditation for focus and as a way to be more present in his life.

“If I’m out to dinner with friends, I’m fully there, not at work or writing an email in my head,” he says.

I’ve decided to check out 3 classes in a row to really get a sense of MDNFL’s offerings, so after taking advantage of the complimentary post-class tea, I settle in for my second class and the very first session of Mindful Mamas. Mamas is described as a class “for expecting and existent moms,” where we will “learn the basics of meditation in order to cultivate the qualities of relaxation, patience, kindness, and care.”

It’s similar to the first class, in that we use the same technique, but we discuss our lives and challenges as moms before and after meditating. Another participant, a new mom to a 7-month-old, says she’s there because she’s not the “mommy group” type but she is craving meaningful connections with other moms. The instructor, Gala, then speaks a bit on meditation as self-care for moms, up there with sleeping and eating well and exercise.

This time, during the meditation, I find myself filled with a strong feeling of love and pride for my son, as a I picture him striding into “big boy school” where I’d dropped him off right before heading to MNDFL. In fact, Gala suggests directly after daycare or school drop-off as the perfect time to take a class or even meditate on a nearby bench as a way to check in with ourselves and slow down after scrambling to get our kids where they need to go.

This is a good reminder that I can do a brief meditation or at least “check in with my breath” and try to be present in my body practically anywhere. One of my fellow meditators from the earlier class said he gets his highest-quality meditation on the subway, and I remember that I used to be able to overcome the boredom and anxiety of being stuck in a long line by practicing mindfulness.

Again, meditating with other people seems to lead to a higher quality of meditation. After 2 sessions, I feel alert, relaxed and connected to my body, and better than I have in months.

As I gear up for my third class, people are starting to get impressed. Yes, that’s right, I am taking three classes in a row. I AM PRACTICALLY ENLIGHTENED.

The next class is Mindful Emotions, which the website says will teach participants to see strong emotions “not as good or bad but simply a part of who we are” and help us “ride the energy of our emotions so we are productive, joyful, and free.”

This class, starting at noon, has the most students yet. The instructor, Adreanna, has us introduce ourselves and talk about why we’re there. She says she started meditating during a “quarter life crisis,” when she had finished college but had no idea what she wanted to do with her life and started having panic attacks.

Her story is mirrored around the room; almost everyone cites panic attacks and work stress as bringing them to meditation. It seems like your typical group of overwhelmed New Yorkers.

Adreanna tells us that for this session, we’ll be paying attention to “the way emotions manifest in our body.” We’re told to notice the feelings that come up, but try to stay a bit removed and observe them objectively.

When we close our eyes, out of nowhere, I start to feel a deep sadness, even grief. However, I focus on it, letting myself feel it and where it originates in my body, and about halfway through my meditation it evaporates, leaving behind a deep sense of euphoria. Everything is clicking and just breathing feels amazing, like I’m sucking in nitrous oxide instead of the usual oxygen.

When Adreanna rings a bell to signal the end of the session, we talk about what we experienced and how we feel. The guy next to me says it feels “weird to be so relaxed,” which I relate to. Not feeling anxiety is such a foreign state to me that it’s almost alarming when it happens.

Adreanna leaves us with an assignment: “For the rest of the day, when you find yourself with a strong emotion, take a moment to feel your feet flat on the ground, the breath in your belly, and notice it. Look it straight in the eyes.”

After 3 hours at the studio (which has a peaceful and calming vibe even outside the classrooms) and three 15 to 20-minute guided meditation sessions, I’m practically floating. I’d forgotten this about meditation as well — it’s a sweet natural way to get high without hurting anybody.

Out of all the interesting-looking offerings sorted into recommendations from the various instructors, I purchase a book that looks interesting and a scented oil that reminds me of how it smells inside the MNDFL studio before I leave.

On the way home, I put down my phone, which I often walk down the street using, and try to just focus on what’s happening in the world around me. I feel light, calm, and serene.

I hadn’t expected to enjoy the guided meditation experience so much, but I leave with the intention of coming back as a paying customer. If the studio were closer to my home or work, I’d consider the $50 (for the first month) membership that gives unlimited class attendance and access to the space for self-guided meditation at any time.

If you’re in the NY area, I highly recommend checking out MNDFL, but any metropolitan area likely offers meditation classes or teachers, or even free meditation groups, all of which I now think are a great option for beginners or those getting back into the swing of meditation like me.

I’ll probably still practice primarily at home (and try out some of the meditation apps I heard about from other students), but I hope to supplement with an occasional group class at MNDFL or one of the free options I know exist in the city. (For those in recovery like me, there are meetings and support groups focused specifically on meditation.)

I’ve heard a lot of people say their chaotic brains won’t let them meditate, and I don’t want to proselytize, but those people may be the ones who could benefit the most from a meditation practice if they are willing to give it a shot. Remember, it’s not about stopping thoughts, just noticing them as they come up and returning to your breath. For most of us, those thoughts come up again and again — for each 15-minute meditation session, I might achieve 3-4 minutes of a “blank” meditative state.

If you are interested in trying meditation, you can start with just 5 minutes and work your way up. And as my “Mindful Moms” instructor Gala put it, “If you can sit for 15 or 20 minutes a few times a week, it will change your life.”

For my part, I don’t need any additional motivation to rededicate myself to a regular meditation practice than this: This morning, I woke up without panic or anxiety for the first time in weeks. I actually can’t wait to get back on the mat.