Addressing Panic Attacks Using the Wisdom of Ayurveda

by Rev. Lauren Tatarsky, Senior Minister

tree trunk with butterflyI’ve been noticing among friends, family, and clients that experiences of panic are on the rise. Many people who have experienced anxiety in some form or another but never experienced panic attacks before are having them now. When patterns start to arise in the circles that make up my world, it strikes me to reflect a bit on the larger picture.

It is my experience that we each have our own complex emotional and energetic bodies, but we are also super sensitive beings and pick up energies from the world around us. And we are more inundated with painful and traumatic events from all over the world than we ever have been before. So first of all, I’d like to tell you that you are not alone in your panic and it may not be your panic alone that you are experiencing. There are likely real things happening in your life that are causing you to experience anxiety (another conversation for another time), but the fact that you are experiencing it as panic now may have a lot to do with the energetic environment of our world. Panic is a pretty accurate description of the state of our world at this moment in time.

Your panic makes sense to me. Your anxiety also makes sense. So this is not about something being wrong with you for feeling these things and you should know that truly, you are not alone. This is about supporting yourself in getting through times of panic; surviving them so that you can get back to connecting with yourself as a whole person and seeing more clearly what’s inside you and in front of you.

What not to do when you’re in a panic state

First off, if you self medicate with marijuana for anxiety, know that there is a lot of investigation happening around marijuana-induced panic attacks. Note that for yourself and look into it.

Secondly, in a state of panic, the mind becomes extra useless to us. Trying to “manage” a panic attack by talking yourself out of it usually just increases the panic (as you will find that your mind is not able to control it, which makes the panic feel even more threatening). Use your mind for one thing and one thing only: to identify that you are indeed having a panic attack and to remind yourself that the essence of panic is irrational. None of the thoughts you have during a panic attack are thoughts you can trust. Panic attacks make us feel like we are actually in a life threatening situation; it feels literally like we are going to die. Thankfully, for most of us who will be reading this, that is not an accurate assessment of what is going on. So panic is a good moment to release your dependency on the thoughts in your mind. Don’t trust them and don’t use them to try to get out.

What to do when you’re in a panic state

I gave a talk on the Five Elements in Ayurveda recently and it struck me that this might be helpful to bring up in the context of panic. Panic is an unbalanced Vata state, Vata being the element of air and ether. Vata is the energy of movement, like in the form of wind, of openness to energy and spirit. It is associated with energy higher up in the body, the upper chakras. In an unbalanced state, Vata is prone to anxiety and ungrounded states.

Vata is balanced by Kapha, the earth element. Kapha energy can be accessed in a number of different ways. Eating grounded foods, hot cooked foods (as opposed to raw), root vegetables, hearty meals that you think of when you think winter. Kapha energy is in the lower body, so doing body scans and spending extra time in your low body is a good idea. Youtube has a lot of guided body scans, which can be really helpful when you’re in panic and can’t walk yourself through your own body scan. The lower body also houses the parasympathetic nervous system, whereas the sympathetic or “fight or flight” nervous system is in the upper body and chest. This is why deep belly breaths can shift our energy if we can access them.

We can tap into Kapha energy by taking walks in the woods and hugging trees. But no matter where you are, try to really feel your feet hit the ground when you walk. Become really tuned into the ground beneath your feet. Get serious about relating to your lower body, your legs like tree trunks and your hips like a bowl that you’re going to fill with your breath. Become really dedicated to surviving your panic through an energy shift. (Notice how I said surviving versus getting out. Try to resist the urge to get out and shift your perspective to how to support yourself as you experience panic.) Relate to yourself as an energetic being that has gotten super carried away on some pretty wild wind and needs to come back to earth. Stop relating to yourself as a person with a mind and things to figure out and do, and start relating to yourself as a system of energies that needs certain support systems to integrate all that life brings.

Lastly, if you connect to a spiritual presence in your life like a sense of the Universe, God, Goddess, Mother Earth, however you name it, in the moment of overwhelm, you can see about releasing some of the energy to spirit. I often drain the part of the energy that feels really overwhelming into the earth and I imagine the earth composting all that energy and turning it into new stuff. To me, this is a very real thing. You can also have a sense that the Goddess will take some of the burden from you, so you don’t have to carry it all on your own. Or she can hold you while you work with yourself.

Okay, good. Deep belly breaths. Body scans. Relocating your energy to the parts of your body below the chest, starting at your belly. Grounding foods. Connecting to the trees and soil. Feeling supported by spirit. Remember that the only universal truth that we can really prove is that everything always changes. You will not be in panic forever. And once you’re out of it, you can look back and see what you’ve learned about yourself and think about how best to support yourself if it happens again. Don’t be afraid of your insides, tend to yourself lovingly and passionately.

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