A volcanic explosion of frenetic energy, a thumping heartbeat, suffocating terror, dizzying tunnel vision, jelly-kneed paralysis, no room, struggling to breathe. Regardless of the cause, experiencing a panic attack is deeply unsettling, and hard to shake off. Consequently, fear of experiencing another attack can become chronic.
During the anxiety ridden chapters of my life, panic struck, seemingly out of the blue, multiple times, every day. I’d desperately try to avoid the debilitating end-of-world terror, but almost all situations were triggering. Public transport, caffeine, meetings, seminars, crowded spaces, emotional situations, intimate situations, eating in restaurants, calling someone on the phone. You get the picture.
The panic attack aftermath: emotional wildfire
When your baseline state is alert and hyper-anxious, fear breeds more fear, like emotional wildfire. I remember feeling completely out of control, as if an unruly entity within me dominated my emotional landscape, striking without notice. If depression is a Black Dog, panic is an Red Tiger.
Even a subtle stirring of the tiger would terrify me — here we go again — and set off the familiar domino effect of anxiety, igniting in seconds. This is panic disorder. It’s horrible.
How you react to a panic attack can reduce collateral damage
Now, I’m fortunate to live a life free from panic. Taming the Red Tiger was a long road, requiring time, the application of many techniques, therapy, and deep reflection into why I responded so viciously to certain situations. Meditation and mindfulness played a significant role; I was able to see the individual components of panic. This changed my perspective.
If you’re seeking support for panic attacks, you’re probably doing what I did — researching ways to prevent them, or ways to manage them once they’ve taken hold. Both of these approaches are extremely important, and I intend to write about them soon. However, there’s overlooked value in managing the aftermath of a panic attack.
Your reaction can make a significant difference in reducing collateral damage. For most of us, the reaction is shame, frustration and criticism. Let’s change that.
Note: I define panic attack as anxiety intrusive enough to momentarily paralyse or debilitate, or stop you from doing what you’d normally do.
The panic attack aftermath from a different perspective
I spoke to a dear friend who had experienced panic recently. Her experience was painfully familiar — the fear being judged, acting erratically, losing control. As my friend recalled the incident, I could tell she was disappointed through the subtle hum of frustration peppering her tone of voice.
My reaction was to give her a warm hug and reassurance. Her reaction was to punish herself, as if she had done something wrong. The same incident, viewed from opposite ends of the empathy spectrum. Then it struck me — the key difference between where I was and where I am on the path to free from panic, is self-compassion.
Using self-compassion to reflect on a panic attack
“How would you feel about this incident if it happened to me?” I asked.
“I’d be sad knowing you felt that way. I’d probably want to give you a hug, too. And I definitely wouldn’t feel people would be judging you, or see you as weak. I’d want to know you were okay and reassure you.”
This was exactly how I felt hearing her experience.
“So, what if you could have this level of compassion towards yourself?” I asked.
The two arrows of pain and suffering: panic and post-panic
Most of us don’t treat ourselves with compassion. Many of the most caring people I know treat themselves in a manner they would never dream of treating a stranger, let alone someone they love. This is deeply upsetting. All of us deserve compassion. The default setting of self-criticism serves no purpose. It makes us feel bad, lowers our self-esteem.
We are extremely vulnerable in the panic attack aftermath. Our systems are in recovery mode. We are in a sensitive emotional state. We are more than likely feeling a little lost, a little out of control. An instinctive, habitual reaction of self-criticism only intensifies this state. After all, panic attacks are grim. Isn’t it counterintuitive to view them with kindness?
A Buddhist parable in the Sallatha Sutta illustrates the importance of how we react to misfortunate. Pain and suffering is compared to two arrows. The first arrow is unavoidable — this is pain. The second arrow is the unnecessary suffering caused by our reaction to pain. This is avoidable.
Using this parable, the panic attack is the first arrow. Granted, there are tools and techniques to manage anxiety. But once experienced, you can’t turn back the clock. For argument’s sake, I’ll stick to the view this is “unavoidable” pain. The focus is on the second arrow — how we interpret the panic attack.
The ripple effect caused by the panic attack aftermath
We feel we fluffed an important interview due to anxiety. We get tickets to watch our favourite band, but we’re unable to enjoy the music as we’re overwhelmed by the crowd. We spend an evening with friends, but instead of relaxing, feel forced, unable to relax. However the unique flavour, the core of extreme anxiety is the sense of I can’t cope.
Because panic attacks are intrusive and debilitating, the fallout can be huge, making the second arrow of suffering harmful and difficult to avoid. In my experience, the typical self-critical ripple of suffering consists of cognitive, emotional and energetic responses:
- Cognitive: A critical storyline forms in the mind. The moment is viewed as a catastrophe — you made a fool of yourself… why are you so pathetic? — and assumptions are made about future incidents — I’ll never cope.. this is the way it will always be. You ruminate, replaying the incident over and over in the mind’s cinema.
- Emotional: Rumination and self-critical thinking leads to disappointment, shame, guilt, frustration, anger, or a host of heavy emotions. I vividly remember a panic attack at university where I rushed home, went straight to my room, shut the door, closed the curtains and got into bed, turning my back on the world because I was ashamed and embarrassed.
- Energetic: Emotions are energy. During a panic attack, the physical elements are intense. As a result, you may feel drained and low on energy after an attack. This makes it harder to be mindful, and can lead to the cognitive and emotional responses taking hold. It’s important to respect this malaise and to rest.
The combination of these responses is the second arrow; panic leads to self-criticism, self-criticism leads to shame, self-worth plummets, low-self worth leads to feeling unable to cope, feeling unable to cope leads to heightened anxiety.
The second arrow of suffering isn’t truth
It’s SO important to remember this reaction is filtered through the anxious mind. It’s not truth. It’s another symptom of anxiety, albeit deceptively palatable. Those thoughts can feel real. It really can feel we’ll never cope, or this is the way it’s always meant to be, or we acted foolishly.
All of these thoughts and beliefs are the second arrow of suffering which can be avoided. Compassion catches the second arrow mid-air. Compassion dilutes the sense of shame and views panic from a more gentle perspective. The below journal exercise is designed to reframe your thinking from a place of criticism to a place of compassion, reducing the cognitive ripple:
Shame arises from self-blame
Shame or frustration following a panic attack indicates you are blaming yourself in some way. But you are not at fault. Some days, anxiety levels are sky high for no logical reason. Maybe it’s physiological, a hormonal imbalance, your body chemistry of the day. Maybe it’s tiredness or hunger of sickness. Some days anxiety is just there. That’s fine.
Moving away from the second arrow of suffering by switching perspective really can reduce the anxiety spiral. But the goal isn’t to banish anxiety forever. Anxiety is one texture in a rich emotional spectrum, and attempting to numb anxiety numbs all emotion. Instead, we can learn to develop an accepting view of anxiety, from a place of love. Compassion is crucial to cultivating this state.
The aim of the below exercise is to take compassion deeper, to manage the emotional ripple. The idea is to move from cognitive understanding of compassion, to directly experiencing its texture and energetic sensation:
Acceptance: another tool in recovering from panic
Adding self-blame and self-criticism, perceiving moments as weakness, makes return to normalcy even harder. Remember these attributes are symptoms. Allowing these states to be, giving them room to arise and fade away, makes recovery so much smoother. This requires a compassionate and accepting mindset.
I have days where anxiety has made simple tasks seem impossible. I’ve had moments where my voice trembles, where I shake. Where leaving the house is difficult. The thing is — I no longer view these incidents as bad, a failure or sign of weakness. They are mere passing waves in the ocean of inner experience.
Ultimately, we have a choice; when anxiety gets the better of us, we can punish ourselves or choose compassion. We can nurture ourselves, understand our triggers, and aim to improve steadily. We can grow from a place of love, not from a place of fear. No one else can do this for us. Next time the self-critical habit kicks in, breathe, sit back, reframe.
You deserve compassion. And the most healing source of compassion comes from within. Can you feel it?