Today I was talking to a friend who is a non-meditator. I asked them why they didn’t meditate. Their response was that meditation gives them panic attacks and anxiety. They are not the first person to say this to me.
We all know that there are significant benefits of meditation for mental health. For instance, meditation helps with anxiety and can help with emotional healing. However, there can be some problems with meditation. I say “can be” because honestly it completely depends on how you meditate, which techniques you do, how often, and for how long. In my lessons, every time someone tells me they have experienced problems from meditating, it isn’t long before I find a key flaw in their practice. Put simply, get your meditation practice right and it will only ever do you good. Get it wrong and it could potentially cause issues, such as dissociation, dizziness, and yes, panic attacks.
In this guide I’ll share everything you need to know about meditation and panic attacks, and how to meditate as someone who is susceptible to this issue.
What Are Panic Attacks?
Anyone who has experienced a panic attack will tell you how brutal they are. Like me, for instance. I remember the feeling of my heart rate escalating to dangerous levels, hyperventilating, my every muscle painfully tense. It was hell. These attacks can be caused by long lasting stress and also by shorter, more intense moments of stress. And they can also be caused by intense physical sensations. And one of the worst things about them is that we are constantly afraid that they might happen again.
As a meditation teacher, it kills me to hear that some people’s meditation practice is causing them to experience these events. Of course, the flip side of that is that meditation can also help with panic attacks. Wow. Confusing, isn’t it. How do we explain this seeming contradiction?
How Meditation Can Help With Panic Attacks
Meditation helps with panic attacks by promoting the relaxation response, making us more mindful, improving emotional wellbeing, and training us to handle discomfort. It achieves this in a few key ways.
For starters, when we meditate we promote activity of the parasympathetic nervous system while reducing activity of the sympathetic nervous system and balancing brain chemicals such as cortisol and noradrenaline. All of this helps us to feel more relaxed.
Meditation also makes us more mindful, helping us to stay focused on the present moment instead of being lost in our fears. It also trains the mind to be less reactive to thoughts and feelings, which essentially means that we will be less effected by anxious feelings that could potentially trigger panic attacks.
Finally, meditation enhances emotional awareness and regulation, putting us more in control of our moods and making us less susceptible to panic attacks caused by unbridled emotions. Naturally, all of these things also help with anxiety.
All of that sounds great, but then how come meditation causes panic attacks for some people?
How Meditation Can Cause Panic Attacks
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, meditation can potentially cause issues, especially for those with preexisting anxiety or unresolved emotional issues.
One reason this can happen is due to repressed emotions. Sometimes when we meditate we release repressed emotions. This has happened to me before when, during a very deep meditation session, I started to release repressed emotions related to my father, whom has passed (rest in peace dad, love you always). Sometimes those emotions can be very strong. And if you are not prepared, they could trigger a panic attack.
Meditation can also cause us to enter a dreamlike state in which imaginations take us over. If you’re sitting with your eyes closed focusing on your breath it is quite easy to begin to daydream. At that point your subconscious is basically taking over and you could imagine anything at all. Perhaps you’ll enjoy a wonderful daydream about your celebrity crush which for me would be Victoria Justice… maybe. Or just maybe you might daydream about a time you experienced abuse. Sadly, we really don’t have much control over these daydreams during meditation.
Finally, meditation can amplify our perception of bodily sensations. Some of those sensations could potentially remind us of former panic attacks, and hey presto, you’re back in the throes of anxiety.
But if all that sounds a bit bleak, don’t worry, you can still meditate. You just have to be a bit smart about it.
How To Meditate With Panic Attacks
Put simply, if you want to meditate as someone who experiences panic attacks, you need to approach the meditative state slowly, allowing any repressed feelings to come out gradually rather than all at once. Here’s how to do that.
For starters, meditate with your eyes open. As I mentioned above, sometimes when we meditate with our eyes closed we start to daydream, and some of those daydreams might not be pleasant. To avoid that issue simply keep your eyes open when you meditate, which is a traditional technique used in methods like Zazen and Trataka.
Speaking of techniques, from my experience teaching meditation I find that people who are prone to panic attacks often respond better to grounding techniques rather than methods that turn our attention inward. Consider Zen Walking and Five Senses meditation (meditating on each of your five senses).
Next, keep your rational mind slightly active while meditating because this will prevent your emotional mind from taking over. This is easy to do. Simply count your breaths from one to ten, as is traditionally done in Soto Zen, or describe the movements of your breath to yourself “Breathing in…abdomen rising… pausing…” and so on.
Finally, don’t fight with whatever comes up during meditation. Fighting will only makes things worse. Instead aim for mindful acceptance of all thoughts and feelings.
Of course, for the best results, book a private meditation session with me.
As a meditation teacher with a history of panic attacks, I do find the relationship between these two things quite fascinating. On the one hand, a misinformed meditation practice can increase the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. On the other hand, an informed practice based on understanding and wisdom can significantly help with this terrifying problem. If you are susceptible to panic attacks, go slowly in your meditation practice, follow my tips above, and for best results, book a private meditation session with me today.
Giving Is Caring
Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations and is the author of four books on meditation. He has been featured in Psychology Today, Breathe Magazine, Healthline, Psych Central and Lion’s Roar.
Paul studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
Paul’s biggest inspirations include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat Zinn, and Jack Kornfield.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison