When you start looking at mental health issues on the internet (in my case panic attacks), it’s pretty conclusive in stating that there is no cure; everything comes down to “managing” whatever mental health problem you may have.
If you happen to have the symptoms listed, you’ve essentially read that you’re going to be very, very uncomfortable for the rest of your life. You will become a shell of your former self, third and second guessing your every thought.
The only option is some drugs that dull your thoughts. Perhaps therapy, if you have the time and the willpower to hyperventilate from your house to the therapist’s office (after 18 weeks on the wait list).
When I fell off the back of the sanity sofa and into the lava, it happened very quickly. At the start of the week I was enjoying breakfast in a bistro, and midway through I was watching a stage production of Sweeney Todd. Except I wasn’t watching it, because I was leaving every 15 minutes to try and calm down in the ladies toilets. And I love that musical.
By the second week, Boyfriend asked me to go and get the milk, from a shop that is less than a minute away. I burst into tears from sheer fear. I have never seen Boyfriend look quite so surprised.
All I wanted to do was to curl up in a sad little ball in my room and communicate only via the internet.
However, I had exams. And then a new job. Boyfriend had to communicate my condition to the exam invigilators, because when I stopped hyperventilating for long enough to speak, my sentences went like “I have an anxieteeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-” *high pitched whine and tears*.
The doctor put me on a low dose of beta blockers and SSRIs. I actually found that if I did anything close to strenuous exercise, the beta-blockers actually made it harder to breathe, which started to mimic a panic attack, causing a panic attack. Yay, panic attack.
The SSRIs made my brain noticeably slower. It was harder to concentrate. I was playing with a rubiks cube, and I realised that if I moved any squares, I couldn’t remember what my next move was going to be, or how to get back to where I started, and I (almost) have a Physics degree.
And to top it all off, I was still having panic attacks. True, now there was a delay from me leaving the house before my brain blue-screened, but it still happened.
I even gave up my cultural heritage and daytime fuel, tea, in the hope that the lack of the stimulant would somehow calm my fragile nerves (pro-tip: don’t give up caffeine the moment you start a new job).
The turning point came 3 months into the madness, when I discovered meditation.
If you can breathe, you can meditate.
To a lot of people, I think meditation is still this far off concept, only practiced by hippies and monks.
I mean, what can possibly happen if you sit down for 10 minutes a day and just focus on your breathing?
Well, actually, it can cause some major changes in your brain – good changes.
It’s the opposite of smoking and twice as relaxing; it’s a nicotine buzz for your whole body, but you never build up a tolerance and don’t suffer withdrawal symptoms.
More and more scientific studies are being done around meditation and the neuroplasticity (how much you can change your brain structure), and these studies are spitting out significant results, and showing surprising images in fMRI scanners. “Mindfulness meditation appears to be a viable treatment option for adults with chronic insomnia and could provide an alternative to traditional treatments for insomnia” . They carried out an experiment to test whether people with social anxiety disorder responded to mindfulness based therapies, and found that not only did their symptoms reduce overall, but that “during the breath-focused attention task, they also showed (a) decreased negative emotion experience, (b) reduced amygdala activity, and (c) increased activity in brain regions implicated in attentional deployment”. Your amygdala is the part of your brain that processes fear, and can be responsible for the jarring, intense way that post traumatic memories are formed. Not only does meditation shrink the grey matter in your amygdala , but is also shown to affect the connectivity of your amygdala with other parts of your brain, which showed up particularly well when expert meditators looked at positive images, but it also allowed them to be less affected by negative images .
It is the best fear buster I’ve come across, and it’s considerably more comfortable than exposure therapy.
If this isn’t enough to convince you that meditation is awesome, then you should know that it can also preserve the length of telomeres in distressed cancer survivors ; telomeres control ageing, and are normally shortened in cancer survivors. There’s a preliminary study that suggests meditation could help with the management of IBS . It is increasingly being used to treat binge eating  – unsurprising as the foundations of Theravada Buddhism are built around understanding and cessation of your cravings.
Meditation > Anxiety
I found meditation, because my friend recommended that I try hypnosis. I tried some online hypnosis videos to help me fall asleep; they did help me fall asleep, but they also led to some super vivid dreams. Vivid dreams can be awesome (dream flight is the best), but also mega tiring.
But it drove me to start looking at holistic therapies; provided it’s not a scam (THIS SUPER AWESOME SECRET WILL HELP YOU OVERCOME ALL OF YOUR ANXIETY FOR ONLY $180 ONE TIME OFFER), what do I have to lose, right? I’d meditated a few times before, but sporadically, with no real structure to my practice.
That’s when I came across Headspace (www.headspace.com).
Headspace is the wellbeing-software fusion of Andy Puddicombe, an app filled with guided meditation courses, helping you find your focus, sort out your stress, or just encouraging you to reconnect with your loved ones. The full app costs £50 (eek!), but the foundation course “Take 10” is totally free. It’s totally free because 10 minutes of meditation every day for 10 days is enough to make you want to throw money at the man as a thank you for your newfound brain freedom.
I am absolutely not suggesting that you fork out your life savings on an app (I just really like its quality, the way you can track your progress, and the totally chill feel I get from just opening it). There’s a whole bunch of youtube videos out there, with or without soothing music.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need guiding at all – by just sitting, being present and focusing your attention on your breath, you are meditating. That’s it.
The benefits of guided meditations are that they lend some structure to your practice, they show you different techniques (such as noting or body-scanning), and it can really help to bring you back if you’re a novice with a busy mind.
I’m shouting about meditation because a week into starting, I was able to manage my panic attacks, and able to calm myself down and regain control of my thoughts. After a month, I had stopped having panic attacks entirely, and I haven’t had one since. The anxiety has lessened as well, and I have an overall higher “chillness” than I did before the panic attacks started. I gave up my meds over a month ago, and I can think clearly again.
It won’t work for everyone, and I am not a medical practitioner, and never come off your meds without the consent of your doctor.
But I think our bodies often knows what they need, and most of the time we are not mindful enough to listen. So this is my challenge to you: go and sit down in a quiet space (on your sofa, in your car, a corner in your room), and just feel yourself breathe. If you get distracted (and you will), just refocus your attention. Just fucking try it. Namaste.
“Maybe I’ll touch a spider later.” -Allie Brosh
 Ong, J. C., Manber, R., Segal, Z., Xia, Y., Shapiro, S., & Wyatt, J. K. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomnia. Sleep, 37(9), 1553-1563. Retrieved from http://www.scopus.com
 Goldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 10(1), 83-91. Retrieved from http://www.scopus.com
 Taren AA, Creswell JD, Gianaros PJ (2013) Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064574
 Mei-Kei Leung, Chetwyn C.H. Chan, Jing Yin, Chack-Fan Lee, Kwok-Fai So, Tatia M.C. Lee, Enhanced amygdala–cortical functional connectivity in meditators, Neuroscience Letters, Volume 590, 17 March 2015, Pages 106-110, ISSN 0304-3940, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2015.01.052.
 Carlson, L. E., Beattie, T. L., Giese-Davis, J., Faris, P., Tamagawa, R., Fick, L. J., . . . Speca, M. (2015). Mindfulness-based cancer recovery and supportive-expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors. Cancer, 121(3), 476-484. Retrieved from http://www.scopus.com
 Berrill, J. W., Sadlier, M., Hood, K., & Green, J. T. (2014). Mindfulness-based therapy for inflammatory bowel disease patients with functional abdominal symptoms or high perceived stress levels. Journal of Crohn’s and Colitis, 8(9), 945-955. Retrieved from http://www.scopus.com
 Godfrey, K. M., Gallo, L. C., & Afari, N. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions for binge eating: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Retrieved from http://www.scopus.com