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The Most Effective Mindfulness Technique I've Used When I Feel a Panic Attack Brewing

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“The next time this happens to you, pay attention to your environment,” my therapist said. “Let your senses keep you tethered to the real world until the panic subsides.”

“I think can do that,” I said.

In fact, I already felt like an expert in this after visiting her office each week. I’d memorized every scuff on her little coffee table and counted all the books on her shelves. I’d even assigned faux names to the three personal photos sitting on her desk. Captain Hair Cuttery was looking good — all smiles today!

“Think about the smells that surround you,” she said. “Pick up something soft and concentrate on how it feels in your hands.”

“OK,” I said, suddenly aware of the old Febreze hanging in the air between us. I nervously twisted a tassel on the couch to consider how soft it wasn’t.

“It’s called mindfulness,” she said with a quick glance at the clock. “Try it the next time you have a panic attack and let me know. OK?”

Mindfulness. Is that really all I needed to do this whole time?

“OK,” I said, leaving with renewed energy.

On the way out, I made note of the secretary’s perfume and listened to the hum of the fluorescent lights that were always too bright. I even felt the smooth vinyl paint on the walls as I walked towards the exit.

Then I drove home, utterly aware of my place in a lush world of mindfulness.

But panic is not really of this world. It has no rationale or logic about how it operates. It just happens. And when it does, my connections to the physical world are replaced with a crippling fear that grinds my brain to a halt. It’s a curse that leaves me physically living, but mentally not. I never have sensory connections to hold on to.

Or, do I?

Two days after I met with my therapist, I was sitting at toddler story time in the library. I brought my kids, who sat criss cross applesauce on the floor while the librarian read us all an enthralling tale revolving around a pig not understanding where his cookie went.

This was not a triggering environment for me. In fact, I looked forward to story time all week long. Not just because the kids loved it, but because I didn’t actually have to do anything. I didn’t have to worry about keeping them entertained. I didn’t have to stop them from running off. I didn’t even have to worry about that poopy smell filling the room.

Wait a sec. Activating mindfulness smell powers…

Nope! Someone else’s kid.

In short, story time was the least-stressful hour of the week for me. So, when a searing panic began to build in my chest, it took me completely by surprise.

Luckily, I had a new tool to fight off the rising chaos that began flooding my brain. So I set to work focusing on the buttons the librarian had on her blouse. They were extra large today, like sugar cookies.

Getting worse.

I thought of the lights above us. More fluorescent bulbs.

Still worse!

The carpet. Harsh, commercial all-weather stuff.


I smelled the air…

God, can someone change that kid’s diaper?!

A minute later, I fell into a deep panic attack. I don’t even remember the rest of story time and have no idea if the pig ever found his cookie. All I remember is trying to pay attention really hard to what all the other parents were doing, so I could pretend to be like them.

Later that night, I told my wife about my failure with mindfulness.

My wife nodded with understanding, and said she’d used mindfulness with limited success for her bipolar disorder.

“I guess it’s not a tool for everyone,” she said.

But it wasn’t the first “tool” that had let me down. And a few months later, I’d all but forgotten about mindfulness ever being a viable solution for me.

One night after getting the kids to bed, I took my glasses off and climbed under the covers. Panic came at me fast.

I clutched the pillow and buried my face in it.

The pillow was especially soft that night, but I didn’t know why.


That’s right! I bought pricy new fabric softener that day. The smell was intense, but also mildly relaxing. I breathed it in deep and decided to give mindfulness one more go.



Focus on the Lavender.

I still panicked that night. The lavender didn’t save me. But it did do something: it helped slow the panic attack from taking hold by giving me something to focus on. I even had enough time to tell myself I was going to go away for a while, but it was only going to be temporary, and I wouldn’t be gone forever.

It was honestly the first thing that helped me feel like I had some control over what was happening, even if it was only for a few seconds. And in that way, my therapist was right — mindfulness is like a tether. Maybe it can’t always go with us to those dark places where we have no control. But it can ease our departure and aid in our return.

Since that night, I’ve tried to practice mindfulness more often and have developed my own techniques when I start to feel an attack brewing.

It really has helped me. Best of all, it make me feel a tiny bit more connected when I’m suffering.

And that’s really something when you feel like you’re losing everything.

Getty image by Lisbeth Hjort

Originally published: October 25, 2019
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