Become Present State Aware
“Do not stay in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate on the present moment.”
The first time I had a panic attack, I thought I was going to die.
I was driving through an unfamiliar part of the city during peak hour, on the way home from the airport. My GPS had taken me down a series of tight back roads. The kind that are barely wide enough to fit one car, yet expected to handle two-way traffic and parked cars. I was on edge but was still coping with the drive, that was until a garbage truck decided to begin its operations up ahead.
There was no exact triggering moment, just a quick, overwhelming onslaught of symptoms. Tight chest, sweating, heart palpations, racing thoughts, and a feeling of impending doom.
At first I attempted to ignore it, hoping it would go away on its own. It didn’t. These symptoms intensified as I became more and more alarmed about them. I fell into a full blown panic attack spiral.
As soon as possible, I entered an empty parking lot, got out of the car and collapsed onto all fours to regain my breath. I quickly got back into the car, reclined my seat, and rested. It took at least an hour to feel comfortable enough to drive again.
It was one of the scariest moments of my life.
Panic attacks are part of my generalised anxiety disorder symptomology. During my worst period, I suffered from an extreme attack at least once per month, but thankfully I don’t have many anymore. Implementing ‘Present State Awareness’, along with the strategies outlined in the rest of part 1, has caused a dramatic reduction in my overall anxiety levels, as well as the number of panic attacks I suffer.
Handling Panic Attacks
The first solution is to ‘acknowledge and accept’ that you are having a panic attack. I know that it may seem counter-intuitive to ‘just accept’ that it is happening, but trust me, that is what you need to do.
A lot of the time, the symptoms of a panic attack increase when you start to become anxious about the fact that you are having the attack. Once the attack begins, it is happening and nothing will stop it.
You just have to wait for the storm to pass.
When I realise that I am about to have a panic attack, I take the following actions. Firstly, I stop what I am doing and excuse myself wherever possible. I will say to myself,
“I know what these symptoms mean, I am having a panic attack. I have had them before and although they are not pleasant, I survived. In a short time, they will pass, just like every other panic attack that I have ever had.”
From there I will do some relaxation exercises including ‘Meditation’ (chapter 1.9), ‘Ten Relaxation Breaths’ (chapter 1.2) as well as attempt to become ‘Present State Aware’.
Become Present State Aware
The goal of present state awareness is to focus your attention on your senses. What you can see, hear, taste, touch and smell. By focusing on your senses, you are directing your attention out of your head and into the present moment. You are grounding yourself in what is happening now, not what was happening or what you think may happen.
- Take five slow and deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Don’t force this breathing pattern, it should feel comfortable and not strained. Continue breathing this way with five breaths for each sense.
- Focus your attention onto what you can feel. What does the ground feel like? Can you feel the wind? Is there any pressure, tension or sensation coming from inside your body? What do your clothes feel like? Are you hungry? Do you feel hot or cold? Have you felt anything new?
- Move your attention onto what you can see. Notice the colours, lines, shapes, textures. Notice the play of light and the casting of shadows. Have you seen anything new?
- Move your attention onto what you can hear. What sounds are coming to your ears? Are they natural or man-made? Can you hear music or a conversation? What is the pitch and tone? Is it loud or quiet? Have you heard anything new?
- Move your attention onto what you can smell. Focus on the air coming into your nose, are there any smells that you instantly recognise? Are there some that you can’t place? Is there an undertone of a particular smell? Have you smelt anything new?
- Move your attention onto what you can taste. Focus on your mouth and tongue, are there any residual tastes in your mouth? Perhaps you can still taste some of the stronger flavours from your last meal or toothpaste. Have you tasted anything new?
Cycle through the senses three times before stopping.
‘Present State Awareness’ gets you out of your head and into the present moment. It is one of the quickest and easiest methods of becoming mindful.
I like to use ‘Present State Awareness’ throughout the day as a way to ground myself. I use the sensations coming from my feet touching the ground as a point of focus.
I don’t always go through the whole process described above, rather I will just acknowledge what I can feel from my feet in that instant. Just a quick acknowledgement and I move on. These quick breaks basically keep mental afflictions* at bay.
Anxious thought pops in, “What can I feel?”
Feeling of regret arise, “What can I see?”
Ruminating over a conversation, “What can I hear?”
Notice a shortness of breath, “What can I smell?”
Tension in muscles rise, “What can I taste?”
* The term ‘mental affliction’ is used throughout this book. It refers to a negative mental state. This could be a general life stressor, worry, mood change or other bad feelings. It can also include one or more of the symptoms of mental illness (eg: an aspect of anxiety, depression, PTSD etc).
Continue The Conversation
How do you handle panic attacks?
Tweet @zacpphillips #panicattacks, with your thoughts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q) How slow should I breathe?
A) There is no perfect rhythm or amount of seconds required to hold and release the breath. Just aiming for ‘slightly slower and deeper than your normal breath’ and you will be on track.
Q) Do I have to cycle through each sense or can I focus on just one or two?
A) Either option is fine, provided you stay focused on the sensations coming in for the duration of the activity.
If I only focus on one sense, I find that I lose focus and eventually slip away from the sense and back into thought and rumination. By switching I am better able to stay focused on the physical sensations that my body is picking up.
Experiment with the activity and choose the combination that best works for you.
Q) What if I can’t calm down enough to focus on my senses at all?
A) If you are having a strong panic attack the first thing to do is acknowledge and accept that it is happening and then calmly take action.
I find that by adding my voice to the observations of my senses, I am able to add further weight to the grounding effects of the activity.
For example I will state out loud, “I can feel the carpet under my feet, it is soft…”
You could also try altering which senses you are focusing on and for how long. You may find that during a panic attack you need to cycle through the senses very slowly (or extremely quickly) to be effective.
As always, speaking to a professional therapist is recommended.
The Mind Illuminated - John Yates
Mindfulness In Plain English - Bhante Gunaratana
Journey of Awakening - Ram Dass
10 % Happier - Dan Harris
By focusing on your senses, you get out of your head and into the present moment. What can you see, hear, taste, touch and smell right now? Focus on that!