When we’re triggered, seemingly safe events can provoke strong, even uncontrollable reactions that are disproportionate to what’s actually going on. Our breath becomes rapid and shallow, or we gulp for air. We sweat, fidget, and feel dizzy, searching for external threats while catastrophizing thoughts flood over us.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are triggered when a sight, sound, feeling or thought in the present reminds us of a traumatic event we survived in the past (a truck backfiring might make a combat veteran dive for cover, a romantic date could invoke terror in a sexual assault survivor). Trauma memories are unlike our explicit memories, which can be recalled and put out of awareness whenever we choose; trauma memories are fragmented and implicit, meaning they cannot be recalled at will. When activated, the content of these buried memories intrude into the present in the form of racing heartbeats, unintegrated flashbacks, impulses to fight, flee, or freeze in terror. What we felt and did to survive the original event is now part of our present experience.
As long as these traumas are unresolved, we can be subjected to either frequent or sporadic panic attacks. Eventually we’ll steer clear of the people, places, and situations that trigger us, leaving us isolated and incapable of embracing life.
The good news is that self-soothing practices can help us return to feeling comfortable. The first step is to inhibit our survival reactions through what the early Buddhist suttas called anapanasati, or ongoing awareness of the breath. By extending our exhalations, we can slow down our heart rate and reduce our body’s secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. Sighing aloud can also help bring relief.
Related: The Trauma Dharma
Next, we can locate “safe sensations” to draw our attention away from panic and our search for external threats. We can do this by scrunching our toes or firmly holding our kneecaps with our hands, by scanning our surroundings for a friendly face or beautiful object, or by counting everything of a particular color. We can then shift our attention back and forth from our pounding heartbeat and vigilance to the safe sensations.
As the heartbeat slows down, we can close our eyes and bring to mind a friend or an imaginary angelic being who sees us in distress and offers us compassion (the latter draws upon the Buddha’s practice of devanusati, or visualizing protective supernatural spirits). We should make eye contact with this benefactor to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system’s “rest and digest” state (the opposite of “fight or flight.”) In this practice, I like to repeat the phrase I love you, keep going, or May I be free of stress and suffering and live with ease.
Stick with it; when panic or anxiety is activated, it can take 10 or 15 minutes of diligent practice to restore ease and security.
Finally, we need to be aware that unless we enlist support, triggers will continue to blindside us and disrupt our life—which is challenging enough without sudden panic attacks! Thankfully, we can continue to heal with the help of a support group and/or therapist experienced in addressing PTSD. When we reach out for help, we’ll find a way back to safety.
Related: Healing Trauma with Meditation
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