A client was telling me how she hasn’t been going to the gym very often in the last couple of months. I had been seeing her for about that amount of time, and she had told me in our first session that she had been drugged and raped by a bunch of muscle-bound guys about ten years ago. She said that ever since that happened, she has had anxiety attacks when she sees the gym where those guys worked out, sees big muscle-bound guys, or hears the word “rape” or “gym.” These are triggers that tell her body to go into a certain mode in which she gets tense, she sweats, her hearts races, and her breathing speeds up. This is the anxiety attack, or panic attack.
A good analogy is that the mind is the software and the body is the hardware. When she was raped, her mind basically got programmed to freak out at the triggers mentioned above. When any of these things happen, her body follows her mind’s instructions and in only a split second it starts to react with the panic attack. She has a prescription for Xanax, which relaxes her body. It does a great job at treating the symptoms. If a person is really tired of this game, though, then it might be time to treat the cause. Let’s go right to the source, the mind, and change the software. And that’s what we started to do that day.
So we’re sitting in my office, and she mentions that she hasn’t been going to the gym very often recently. I replied that I thought she said could not even drive by gyms, much less go inside to work out. My asking that question is all it took and her body started freaking out. She got tense and started to sweat, and she said she was having an anxiety attack. “Here it comes,” she said. Her heart was racing and her breathing was quick and shallow. She began to reach for her purse to take a Xanax. I asked her if she would be willing, since she was in a safe place, to hold off for a few moments and just surrender to the panic attack. Breathe and feel and let go. She could always take the medication.
She wasn’t thrilled at the idea, but she agreed. So she just sat there and let it be there, breathing and feeling, and she experienced it directly without a story. I reminded her that she was in a very safe place, and the Xanax would still be there anytime she wanted to take it. Let’s just try it another way, the opposite way, this one time. Let’s just sit still and surrender to it.
She was shaking and sweating. I had her breathe and relax into it as much as possible, just feeling it without any words. Don’t call it anything, and definitely don’t tell a story about how it happened, why it happened, whose fault it was, etc. She said she really felt embarrassed that it had happened. I told her to just let herself be totally, completely embarrassed in that moment. Be embarrassment itself. Just surrender to it and feel it all the way through.
After about five minutes, she smiled and said it was passing. She literally could not believe it. She said this was the first time she had had one of these anxiety attacks without taking Xanax. She didn’t know that she could weather this type of storm. I told her about the hardware/software analogy and told her that in only five minutes, we had gone to the cause of the problem and had essentially told the body that it didn’t have to freak out anymore at these triggers. There’s nothing wrong with taking the Xanax, unless of course you want these attacks to finally lose their power. If this is what you want, the irony is that you have to go there and let it be. Go into it. Let it consume you. Invite it and meet it head on, face to face. The trick is to do this and only this, though. No story, no reasons, no victims, no good, no bad. No words or language at all. Just feel it. In that feeling, you might learn that it can’t really touch you. This is true acceptance, and it’s very powerful.
NOTE: Be very careful if you experiment with this. My client was in a safe place in my office when she did this. Also, there’s a time and place for medication. I am in no way saying that medication is bad or that you shouldn’t take it. I’m also not saying that panic attacks are no big deal. They’re very scary and powerful. But this post is meant to show you that they might not be as powerful as we think if we take a deeper look.