When a Panic Attack Becomes a Gift

Originally published here on JillianPransky.com

It was in Autumn 2000, and it wasn’t a typical day.

I was coming home from Maryland after helping to clear out the belongings of my beloved sister-in-law who had just passed away from cancer a few months before.

On the highway, suddenly my arms started to shake, my vision blurred and my breathing grew shallow and fast. I remember feeling tingly all over and thinking that I was going to pass out. Thankfully, I wasn’t at the wheel; my then boyfriend pulled off at the nearest exit and took me straight to the ER.

Convinced I was having a heart attack or facing something equally grave, I was shocked when my vitals came back normal. The ER staff told me that physically, I was fine. I was having a panic attack.

Wait. What? Me? No!

I remember questioning the doctor: How could I be having a panic attack? I am yoga teacher.

A panic attack made no sense. Plus, heart disease runs in my family. A heart attack made much more sense.

Not only that, but I figured I had the wrong personality for an anxiety disorder. I didn’t feel particularly fragile or vulnerable. I was naturally strong and optimistic, and I had so much drive to go after my goals. I never thought of myself as anxious, nervous, or depressed.

Yet I came to learn that inside, I held buried feelings that came from growing up with a chronically ill and volatile father. I just was not aware of how deeply I was holding onto things…until I had the panic attack. What seemed to have happened, was that the trauma of losing my sister-in-law, who was around my age and a lot like me, was a trigger event for facing the vulnerability that I’d been suppressing for so long.

It is very possible, that when a major event, a transition, or an unexpected incident triggers a big shift in perspective, feelings we have buried for years can rise up, seemingly out of nowhere.

In the months following my first panic attack, I remember days of debilitating fears. I was afraid to ride the subway, afraid to fly in a plane. Things I used to do regularly, without ever thinking twice about them, now seemed threatening. I had this feeling, as if I were forever running away from danger.

I remember sitting in my apartment one day, not sure I could actually leave to go to work, and it was in this moment that things shifted. I became more afraid that I would not get my life back than I was afraid of the anxiety.  I remember rolling out my yoga mat and returning to my practice. From that point on I dedicated myself to learning how to adapt yoga and meditation practices to help return me to feelings of grounded-ness and presence, and I acquired new tools to cope with acute and low-lying anxiety.

In the end, the panic attack was a gift, because it revealed all the ways I had felt out of control historically. This exploration would eventually become the basis for my book Deep Listening: A Healing Practice to Calm Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Open Your Heart.

A foundational step for me was learning not to analyze my anxiety or try talking myself out of it. Instead I focused on literally supporting and calming my body. I practiced feeling myself on the earth, noticing my surroundings, and deepening my breath. All of this allowed me to look at the anxiety more objectively. I learned that it wasn’t  – ”I am anxious” or “I am afraid.” But rather, it was “I’m having the experience of feeling afraid.” Knowing this let me realize that the anxiety wasn’t going to kill me. This allowed me to expand back out into the world, even when I felt shaky.

Through my travels of sharing yoga with hundreds of people from all over the world each year, what I’ve learned is that most of us suffer from low-lying or acute anxiety and don’t know why it arises.  Or, we feel stressed and overwhelmed much of the time. Most of us carry around powerful emotional narratives – the “stories” we tell ourselves that keep triggering our feelings of anxiety. And, most of us don’t yet know how to change the habits that keep us stuck in the “story telling” loop that keeps us feeling stressed and anxious.

Over the past 25 years, the more I’ve learned about how our bodies work, how our minds work, and how stress is at the root of much of our fatigue, burnout, anxiety, addiction, and illness, the more passionate I’ve grown in developing and offering therapeutic yoga programming.

But the truth is, stress is not really the problem. The problem is that we need to respond differently – not only to stress but also to anything that makes us uncomfortable.  This is at the heart of my practice and teachings – learning how to respond differently to stress and challenges in the day-to-day moments of our lives…how to live our yoga off the mat.

This year, I am so grateful to have several opportunities to share practices and tools for those living with chronic stress, anxiety  and, or depression.  I will have 4 free online practices with Yoga Journal and we are launching a new course Restorative 2.0: Short, Simple Practice To Stay Calm On The Mat (and in the Moment), I am also so excited to be creating a Yoga For Anxiety course with Yoga Anytime.

If you are looking for an in-person program, in addition to my annual sumer retreats at Omega and Kripalu, I am also presenting at Kripalu’s Narrative Healing Conference June 30- July 5 and at Omega’s New Program: Healing Depression through Connection September 13-15.

Mindful Magazine will publish a story about my work in the May / June Issue and also feature my Soft Belly Breathing Meditation, free at Mindful.org.

Lastly, I am working on creating some bit-sized video practices for you, to be offered on my social media platforms this summer.  My wish is that you, or someone you know, will benefit from using these very simple, potent, holistic and practical tools to live a life that can be more grounded, present and open – with whatever challenges arise daily in your lives.

May we remember that there is a ground underneath us, holding us up.

May we allow ourselves to land on it.

May we remember that the breath is always there for us, simply waiting for more room to expand with in us.

May we allow it to flow freely through us.

May we remember that we can come back to land and expand, over and over again.

And May You enjoy these offerings and explorations on the topic of anxiety…

Naturally Calm
Explore Alternative Anxiety Therapies in Chronogram Magazine

Deep and Deeper 
Mark Nepo & Jillian Pransky on SHINE ON! Kacey’s Health & Happiness Show

A Supple Psoas Yoga Sequence
A Free one-hour class mixing slow flow & restoratives to ease stress and anxiety.

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