When a panic attack strikes, it can be better to give it the space and air it needs, just as the sky gives space to a storm until it passes.
‘So in total, you’ve been working in or visiting the Borough of Westminster for, what, around twelve years? Longer?’
‘Longer probably,’ I say, and the moment starts building then, there, a profound sense of unease located somewhere inside me, identifiable as a slight clutching of my solar plexus. I diagnose it in myself even as I am baffled by it.
‘So,’ she says, and her voice becomes slow, gentle. ‘It would be fair to say that with all that commuting and walking from the Tube and lunch hours and so on, that you are very familiar with the area?’
It is building. My breath begins to deepen. I can feel that my chest is rising and falling, imperceptibly at first, but the more I try to control myself, the more obvious it becomes. The atmosphere inside the court tightens, everyone can sense it. The judge is staring at me. Am I imagining it, or has the jury member in the pink shirt on the periphery of my vision sat up a little straighter, leaned forward in his seat? All at once, I dare not look at the directly. I dare not look at you, sitting in the dock.
I nod, suddenly unable to speak. I know that in a few seconds, I will start to hyperventilate. I know this even though I have never done it before.
The barrister’s voice is low and sinuous, ‘You’re familiar with the shops, the cafés…’ Sweat prickles the nape of my neck. My scalp is shrinking. She pauses. She has noted my distress and wants me to know that I have guessed correctly: I know where she is going with this line of questioning, and she knows I know. ‘The small side streets…’ She pauses again. ‘The back alleyways…’
And that is the moment. That is the moment when it all comes crashing down.
I am hyperventilating openly now, breathing in great deep gulps. My defence barrister – poor Robert – is staring at me, puzzled and alarmed.
Louise Doughty. Apple Tree Yard
‘The mind is home to our thought processes, and with its perceptions we create our world. When panic occupies and consumes our thoughts, it can take over and hold us hostage. Panicky thoughts race and swirl about, and the common result is feeling overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom. These thoughts may send us to the emergency room believing that we’re having a heart attack.
These thoughts can paralyze us so much that we are unable to get out of the house. These thoughts can make us break out in a cold sweat and begin to hyperventilate just before we give a speech.
As a way to work with panic, perhaps this metaphor will be helpful: As you learn to sit back and just experience the coming and going of your mind states, you can be like the sky giving space to a storm. It is the virtue of the sky, which is made of air, to give as much space as a storm needs—and in the end, as a result of having that space, the storm eventually dissipates. In the same vein, as you give space to the storms of panic, acknowledging what’s present in the body and mind and letting it be, it too will gradually dissipate, recede, or fade away.
Stormy mind states are here for a while and then they leave. Where they came from and where they go is often difficult to comprehend, but what’s most important is to know that they are here and that they are governed by the laws of change.’
Bob Stahl and Wendy Millstine. Calming the Rush of Panic: A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Guide to Freeing Yourself from Panic Attacks and Living a Vital