For many of us, internal sensations are the enemy. We spend most of our time doing anything and everything to avoid sensations.
A heart flutter, butterflies in the stomach, hot or cold flashes, chills, or burning in the abdomen, can send us straight to panic, or worse, a panic attack.
When the sympathetic nervous system has been activated enough that we fight or flight, it is in this state that we are not in touch with our sensations because we are busy abandoning the threat in our environment. The same is true for our reptilian response of freeze.
In the frozen state, our heart is racing, our ears are tuned for the predator, and our body is in a frozen state waiting for the right moment to wake up and run, or in the very worst-case scenario, die.
Repeated episodes of attacks on our nervous system can reap havoc in our lives and on our nervous system, making the baseline state nearly impossible. It’s no wonder then, that our internal sensations become a foreign and sometimes terrifying experience.
The techniques that are helpful in gently bringing us back into the body are mindfulness strategies. Mindfulness means doing one thing at a time on purpose, without judgement. The most famous exercise that exemplifies this is eating a raisin mindfully.
How to practice mindfulness to prevent panic or anxiety attacks
Mindfulness is helpful in preventing anxiety when a body sensation triggers anxiety or panic. When a body sensation triggers panic, simply engage fully in what you are doing without allowing your thoughts to dominate.
For example, if you are cooking when you experience a body sensation and begin to feel anxiety, engage fully in the cooking activity while noticing the anxiety but not allowing the feeling to dominate, by staying fully present and engaged in the activity of cooking.
You might verbally say out loud what you are doing; ‘right now, I am stirring the soup in this steel pot. I am noticing the hot steam on my hand and I am smelling the spices in the soup. I am feeling anxiety and at the same time I am stirring this soup, and feeling the heat on my hand and noticing this pot on the stove’.
When a negative thought comes in, just notice the thought and immediately return to the activity participating fully without getting distracted in another activity. This mindfulness practice usually dissipates anxiety. You may have to return to the activity over and over again but eventually, the anxiety will pass. As you get better at practicing mindfulness you will find this to be a very powerful strategy for grounding all distressing body sensations and emotions.
Example of eating a raisin mindfully
First, put the raisin in your mouth and see how the raisin feels; the texture, shape, and taste.
Observe how the raisin feels in your mouth to suck on, and to chew.
Observe the number of times you chew the raisin.
When a thought comes in that judges this experience such as ‘oh this is delicious’ or ‘this is sour’ just notice that thought and let it go. Remember, the object of mindfulness is to just notice, staying fully present in the activity without judgement about the activity.
No matter how many times a thought comes into your mind, return to chewing the raisin, participating fully in the experience of chewing the raisin until it is swallowed.
What Mindfulness is not
There are many spiritual practices that incorporate mindfulness activities and what is called mindfulness meditation.
In the Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness meditation is simply focusing on your breath and when your mind wanders, without judgement, noticing the thought and bringing the mind back to your breath. This kind of mindfulness practice is considered an advanced strategy.
Unfortunately, mindfulness practice is also confused with religious meditations and other spiritual practices which can make it confusing for people. Mindfulness sometimes gets put in the same class as meditation practices.
Mindfulness is not chanting. closing your eyes and meditating until you leave your body. It is not a religious practice. While mindfulness is borrowed from Buddhist practice, Buddhism is not a religion, rather, it is a philosophy.
Regardless, mindfulness has been backed up by science and has proven to be very effective for integrating both the right and left side of our brain.
In his book, Mindsight, Daniel Siegel speaks to this and the research that he has done at Harvard on how mindful practice affects the brain. The exciting facts are that mindful practice can not only help integrate the brain, hence helping the nervous system achieve a calm state, but such practice has shown to change brain function in positive ways.
Neurons that fire together (for better or worse) also wire together. We can actually grow our brains through mindfulness practice!
- Keep Calm & Stimulate Your Vagus Nerves. ~ Kimberley Luu (elephantjournal.com)