How I Accidentally Breathed My Way Out of Panic
It started happening when I was around 18 years old. I remember one incident, in particular. It was during my first year at community college. A single thought started the chain: I’m not close enough to the door. And then another one: What if it happens in front of everybody? The now familiar sequence was escalating, and I was starting to feel hot: There are no windows open!
Although I didn’t know it then, I was having a panic attack, which usually culminated in a complete blackout. With a pounding heart and a feeling of terror and helplessness, I would feel myself going pale and clammy only to wake up a moment later in total confusion.
But this time, I was determined to stop it from going that far. I was going to break that chain! Out of sheer determination not to faint in the middle of Psych 101, and in front of the cute guy in the next aisle, I instinctively started to breathe. I took the biggest, deepest, longest inhale of my life, as if that breath was my life line to consciousness, as if that breath could keep the sun from sinking, as if it could hold the sun above the horizon one more moment and keep my universe from going dark.
The experience might be likened to that moment when you first look through binoculars. Before adjusting them, all you see is black with two tiny rays of light. You have to move them a bit to find that sweet spot where the pin-point beams are in position and then you can see. As my world was starting to go dark, I continued to concentrate on each breath going in and out of my nose. And I slowed the rhythm down. Inadvertently drawing on the singing lessons I had taken when I was little, I brought the air deep down to the bottommost part of my lungs, so as to “breathe from the diaphragm,” as my vocal teacher would howl out, in full vibrato.
This whole drama was going on in the middle of the classroom, yet I don’t think anyone was the wiser. But finally, that moment came when I knew I was going to be fine. I had regained a hold of my consciousness. It was as if I was breathing existence into reality, or rather, breathing reality into existence. Those little streams of light got bigger and the world became vivid again.
I had breathed my way out of the crisis. I had also just discovered meditation accidentally, since the breath is exactly where meditation starts. That first conscious breath is the first tug at the yoke of the body’s wild horses. It is an immediate summons to the nervous system to settle into quiet repose. It tells the racing horses to come to a relaxed gallop.
In that breathing space, we find our equanimity, our power to remain still when the world is swirling around us, whether it be the world without or the world within. The hurricane spins and we stand perfectly balanced in the center.