Panic is a sudden sensation of fear that is so strong that it inhibits rational thought. It is sometimes the absolute best reaction in a situation of imminent danger and the fear response exists for our own safety. Sometimes though, panic is not the best response.

Some years ago I found myself in a panic when I thought I had lost my youngest daughter who had only just started to walk. I was out in town with my other two children, who were all under five at the time.

I was gripped by a sudden overwhelming panic that she was gone and when we’re gripped by panic, we may experience physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, chest pains, light-headedness, difficulty breathing and trouble focusing. I had all of these as I started pleading and gesticulating with my right hand to my other bewildered children to help me look for the youngest.

I was so gripped by panic that I couldn’t see that I was actually holding her in my left arm! Panic can do that.

A panic attack is a different phenomenon, however. Most people who have panic attacks commonly say that they experience their first attack almost out of nowhere. It can feel like having a heart attack since it is frequently accompanied by chest pains, dizziness, shortness of breath and profuse sweating. These symptoms are very real and very frightening, as well as being exhausting. The consequent uncertainty is that if the first attack came out of nowhere, surely an attack can return anytime, so there can be a constant anxiety, inducing threat of reoccurrence.

While it can be really difficult to find the trigger of a panic attack, usually an attack begins because one notices some feeling in the body. Panic attacks cause what’s known as hypersensitivity. This is when the mind (not consciously) essentially monitors the body, so that it notices any and every change. Whenever the mind notices a change, it focuses on it, which amplifies the experience. Many of these are changes that those without anxiety wouldn’t even notice, or would generally ignore, but when you have a panic disorder, you cannot.

As soon as you notice that feeling, you experience a flood of anxiety. Usually one of the following two thoughts occur: “Something is wrong with my health.” or “Oh no, another panic attack is coming.” However, the main thing to realise is that these are physical sensations. The person with anxiety attacks isn’t imagining these thoughts out of the blue. Rather, they’re noticing physical changes in their body in a way that those without anxiety rarely notice.

If some of those look like standard anxiety symptoms, that’s because they are. Those that have these attacks often experience anxiety over the attacks, which in turn actually triggers an attack. It’s possible for a panic attack to come out of nowhere, but generally they are slight triggers involved, followed by a significant rush of anxiety.

It is important to note – but not necessarily helpful to those who suffer from them – that panic attacks are not dangerous events, and many of those who get them are completely healthy. But there are so many physical symptoms involved and so much anxiety that it often feels like something terrible is wrong with your health – even if you know you have an anxiety attack problem.

How can mindfulness help us?

One of the ways we can choose to respond is by being kind to ourselves: treating ourselves like we would treat a good friend if they were upset or scared.

When a person with panic is motivated to practice and try new techniques, that person is literally changing the way their brain responds. When you change the way your brain responds, anxiety and panic will continue to shrink. The strategies you use against it will become stronger, and panic will cease to cause you problems.

Continued mindfulness meditation practices, including the petal practice as outlined here, may help you come to experience even brief moments of comfort. In these brief moments of comfort, you may notice that you do not feel anxious all the time, that the strength of your anxiety varies in intensity and, like everything else, it comes and goes, it passes, it is, by it’s very nature, impermanent. This is a very useful insight and can really help you to respond to any potential anxiety attacks before they take hold of you.

Indeed, if you find yourself in the midst of an anxiety attack, you may find you are much better able to regulate the bodily sensations and attacks do not have the same effect as they once did. The net effect here is that they become less frequent, less intense and, in some cases, cease altogether. CL

For further information, visit For more practical mindfulness exercises, visit Catherine Callaghan Yoga on YouTube.