Waking from a night terror
I awoke; heart pounding, covered in sweat & unable to breathe. I felt like someone was covering my mouth to stop me breathing. Every muscle in my body was tense. My heartbeat was pounding throughout my body. My nervous system was wired in a hyper-freeze response. Fight or flight was not an option. After a few moments fearing that I was about to die, I realised where I was. I told myself that it was only a nightmare & forced myself to breathe.
The 1st breath felt almost impossible to take, like my body no longer remembered how to breathe, preparing for the end.
“Focus, breathe, you can do this.”
I told myself as each breath needed my undivided attention. Slowly, gradually, it became easier. My breaths became deeper & longer. With each breath, the muscles slowly relaxed, & the racing thud of my heartbeat slowly returned to its familiar regular rhythm. I turned on the bedside lamp; bringing light to the darkness.
"I'm ok, I'm safe in bed. Nothing is trying to kill me."
I placed a hand on my heart to connect with the pulsating life within, gently supporting my body & mind to let go of the terrifying experience. As my nervous system slowed down, I tried to return to sleep, but the fear of terror kept me awake. When I turned the light off & dropped into the darkness, the fear of panic & helplessness returned with a vice-like grip. My inner little girl could not completely separate the night terror from reality.
“What if I suffocate & die? What if I have another panic attack?”
The thoughts repeated round & round in my mind. I felt the fear grow & my body became tighter with each thought.
“Bring it back to the breath. Breathe. Let go of the thoughts. Let go of the tension.”
With long deep breaths, I exhaled the tension away from the muscles, visualising them relax. With the relaxation came mental & physical exhaustion; a welcome relief. I felt my body supported by the breath. I felt my mind & spirit supported by the light. Staying with the breath & with a hand on my heart, I slowly surrendered to sleep. The next day, I realised my body & mind were screaming to be heard. There had been various triggers to this episode, creating a constant state of hypervigilance & inability to sleep for weeks. Although I have supported people with anxiety & panic attacks for over a decade, this lived experience stirred up so many questions…
How would someone deal with this if they have no experience of mental health & no knowledge of the resources that are available?
Where would they go? How would they cope?
Research shows that people with anxiety disorders are more likely to contemplate suicide (Kanwar et al. 2013).
I thought of friends who ended their lives this year & wondered; Did they have panic attacks? Did they feel anxious & isolated even though they had people around them? I wondered how else I could support people impacted by panic attacks & anxiety. Below is a list of powerful strategies to prevent & overcome panic attacks / anxiety.
Techniques to prevent & overcome panic attacks / anxiety
Deep breathing into the diaphragm: Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth. Extend the exhale so its longer than the inhale. You can count in your mind as you breathe e.g. counting to 7 as you inhale, counting to 11 as you exhale. Practice this every day so it becomes automatic. Diaphragmatic breathing & extending the exhale engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which supports you to relax
Focus on the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, & touch. Find one example for each sense. E.g. what can you taste in your mouth right now? What can you smell?
Splash your face with cold water: this activates the mammalian diving response; an innate physiological reflex that will slow down your heart rate
Create space: connect with your emotions & let them move through you. Our unconscious wants suppressed trauma & emotions to be seen & healed, so make time to feel what your unconscious is communicating to you
Our body holds much wisdom: allow it to express. Your body may want to shake, dance, jump, scream, shout or hit a pillow; allow it
Create a self soothing kit: include things that appeal to your sense of touch, smell, taste, sight, sound e.g. smelling salts, essential oils, cuddly toy, soft or heavy blanket, favourite relaxing music
Come back to the present moment: where are you? Look at your surroundings. Identify the objects in your surroundings
Exercise regularly. Even 10 minutes of aerobic exercise a day can completely change how you feel. Find what works for you; perhaps a fast walk, running, dance or yoga
Avoid alcohol, caffeine & smoking. Research shows they increase the risk of anxiety & panic attacks.
Eat regular healthy meals: keep your blood sugar levels stable
Express: if you have the same thoughts going round & round in your mind, express them in an image or write them down then put them away for another day. If they are things you need to get done, make a list of things to do, then put it away e.g. in a drawer, cupboard or somewhere else that feels right for you
Constant worrying? Create timed worry time. If you need to find solutions to a problem & keep worrying about it, set a fixed worry time to focus just on that one thing. 10 minutes works wonders. Just make sure you time yourself
Focused attention: meditation, mindfulness, & visualisations can relax our nervous system & guide our attention away from our worries
Reach out: connect with people who you think may understand. Connection supports the nervous system to relax through the social engagement system.