Mindfulness Tips From A Former Stress Junkie

It was like an out-of-body experience without the serene white light—and it was terrifying. The first time I experienced a panic attack I thought I was dying: My hearing got muffled, my knees shook, and I felt like I was leaving my body as the room started to spin. Yet, I was still standing on my own two feet, my heart pounding from my ribcage to my eardrums. My kids in the next room had no idea what was happening to me.

Before that, I had been proud of being a stress junkie. My drug of choice: the body- and-mind-damaging high I get from squeezing an inordinate amount of tasks and deadlines into a compressed block of time.

In my mid-30s, with two children under age five, I was a Type-A workaholic who’d respond to emails until midnight, even after spending a full day in the office and completing the hour-long commute home. At night, I’d hang out with my kids while doing bicep curls or squats in the kitchen. After my kids were in bed, I’d sit down to write or do creative stuff. Don’t even ask where my husband or social life fit in.

It was like an out-of-body experience without the serene white light—and it was terrifying. The first time I experienced a panic attack I thought I was dying:

I loved having too many balls in the air—but only when I had the illusion of having control over all of them.

My boss told me I was one of the most productive people she’d ever met. My mother said she couldn’t understand how I could still stand, considering how much I did all day (and how little I slept).

But I really wasn’t so different from many of my coworkers. In fact, 59 percent of American workers say they use their mobile devices to do work after normal business hours, according to a recent Workplace Options survey. And about 80 percent of workers who use a smart phone, tablet, or laptop to work outside of typical business hours even say it’s a good thing, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. Plus, most of the mothers of small children I knew also worked a job outside the home.

But what was I trying to prove? I told myself I was showing my daughters what a powerful female role model looks like—a mother, wife, artist, and woman working in an executive role. A fit woman. A woman who’d wear Calvin Klein dresses and five-inch stilettos to work but also published a book of poetry. A woman who didn’t cry.

I didn’t exactly know it then, but I was overcompensating on a large scale, and my psyche was slowly being invaded by stress, anxiety, and fear.

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“Not only are women working, they’re also still primary caregivers for their children, and they’re given unrealistic ideals to aspire to via social media, popular media, TV and magazines,” says Haley J. Snyder, empowerment coach, author, and public speaker at The Empowered Coach. “The main issue is a lack of balance in priorities, complicated with a proclivity for comparing to other people with ‘perfect’ lives.”

I suppose I was aiming to do it all, without showing the cracks.

I didn’t exactly know it then, but I was overcompensating on a large scale, and my psyche was slowly being invaded by stress, anxiety, and fear.

And because of it all, I began experiencing periodic panic attacks, exhaustion, depression, and feelings of hopelessness. Then, in May 2015, two days after moving into a new home, I was in a car accident.

A young driver ran a stop sign, T-boning my car on the driver’s side. As I sat covered in glass in the aftermath, ears ringing and head throbbing, all I could think of was my two children in the back seat. Are they dead?—a mother’s worst fear.

Luckily, they weren’t hurt. However, for a year I dealt with the effects of a concussion: light phobia, dizziness, and severe migraines with an aura. On top of that, I had bulging discs in my neck and a herniated disc in my spine. I gained 20 pounds due to inactivity and started having panic attacks daily.

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Because I didn’t want to take medication for the panic attacks, I found a stress-management professional who would offer other tips. The professional told me that the way toward recovery from the generalized anxiety and panic attacks was through mindfulness.

“The definition of mindfulness is noticing,” Snyder told me.It has three components: observing, describing, participating, and of course, practicing being nonjudgmental during these components.” It’s not a magic pill, but the more you do it, the better it works.

After a driver T-boned my car, I had bulging discs in my neck and a herniated disc in my spine. I gained 20 pounds due to inactivity and started having panic attacks daily.

My therapist sure had her work cut out for her. But the techniques actually worked. Here’s what I tried:

1. sHORT MEDITATIONS

I felt like the worst candidate for meditation (I have a hard time turning my mind off), but my therapist recommended downloading the free Insight Timer, which has more than 1.1 million users and offers timed, guided meditations (some as short as three minutes). The app sat on my phone for a couple months before I finally turned to it as a last resort.

I was working in my home office one day when my heart started pounding: There was no clear trigger, but a panic attack had snuck up on me. I grabbed my phone, selected the three-minute “happiness” meditation and lay on the floor. As the bells that began the meditation rang, I focused on those. Amazingly, at the end of the meditation, I felt like I had gotten on top of the panic attack.

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What I found in navigating and using different types of meditations was that the ones that worked for me were the most literal ones—the ones where I was prompted to scan my body, not the ones that asked me to imagine being on a breezy beach. This helped to distract me from feelings of anxiety.

2. GROUNDING EXERCISES

I also used Grounding exercises, which are about employing our senses (what we’re seeing and hearing) and connecting them to our bodies and mind.

These are different from guided meditations because you can recall and employ these techniques quickly and easily in order to distract yourself from whatever anxiety you’re experiencing.

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For example, when I had a bad panic attack at work, I closed my eyes and asked myself a series of questions: What’s your name? How old are you? What two things can you hear right now? What two things can you feel right now? What two things can you smell right now?

That allowed me to ground myself in the present, warding off the feelings of anxiety.

3. sTIMULATING The Vagus Nerve

My therapist believed that my panic levels increased after the car accident because I was suffering from PTSD—from the fear of losing my life or my children.

These are different from guided meditations because you can recall and employ these techniques quickly and easily in order to distract yourself from whatever anxiety you’re experiencing.

“One of the trademarks of PTSD is that your brain gets stuck in a feedback loop when it’s triggered,” Snyder says. “The brain then plays the memory as if it’s happening in the present moment, evoking all of the fear, angst, fight-or-flight responses and other physiological side effects that happened during the actual trauma.” Mindfulness helps you to identify when this is happening.

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Here’s where the vagus nerve comes into play: It’s part of the parasympathetic nervous system and starts in the brainstem and trails down the spine to the tongue, heart, lungs and other organs. When you indirectly stimulate it by belly or diaphragmatic breathing, you’re forcing your body to calm down, since you’re counteracting your sympathetic nervous system, which activates your flight-or-flight responses.

Belly breathing essentially means filling the abdomen, rather than the chest cavity, with air. When it’s full, you hold it for a few seconds.

Belly breathing whenever I needed it became a lifesaver. I found that it almost immediately calmed physical symptoms of anxiety, especially before bedtime.

I’m still a work in progress in terms of moving past my anxiety and PTSD, but I use at least one mindfulness technique daily to guide me out of that panicked space and back into the confident sphere I used to walk in—and where I know I will will again.

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