Why do I sometimes have a panic attack or feel really restless in the middle of meditating?

Question:

If meditation and yoga are so good for anxiety and panic attacks, I don't understand why I can actually have a panic attack or extreme restlessness in the middle of a yoga class, yoga nidra or meditation. And what should I do about it when it happens? -Ohio, US


Answer:

Thank you for that question, it's a really good one because so many people have this experience.

Don’t worry, it’s all completely normal and it will pass. There are two main reasons that it happens:

1. Yoga, meditation, yoga nidra relaxation and so on, are just an extension of everyday life, so what happens in life can happen here too.

2. That change from the familiar feeling of tension to the new sensation of relaxation, for the very anxious person can sometimes feel a little scary initially.

So, let’s look at this in a little more detail:

1. An extension of everyday life.
For a while, the same thoughts, sensations and symptoms that you experience the rest of the time, you may also experience when you’re “supposed” to be relaxing. In fact, you will probably become more aware of them because of the quiet and stillness of these practices.

There is less going on to distract you and you may not be able to use your usual avoidance tactics - the most common one being to get up and get busy doing something else. Restlessness usually happens when you become aware of your inner tension and rather than letting go you feel a strong desire to avoid the feeling by being active.

So, the same things can happen during your practice, as happen outside of your practice. Think of it this way – your body has some healing to do in order to recover from the anxious state. It’s just the same as a broken leg- it isn’t going to suddenly be healed when you meditate; your anxiety state is going to take a little while to heal too. Meditation, yoga and so on are definitely going to help the process though, by teaching the nervous system to begin to let go of all its stored up tension.

2. The new sensation of relaxation.
Feeling a little scared when the body starts to relax is very common. When you’re feeling really anxious, almost anything can be scary. Moving into a state of relaxation after a long time of feeling you need to be tense (to prevent anxiety escalating into panic for instance) can feel frightening, because everything in your body is telling you that you need to stay on red alert.

So, how do you deal with it?

You just use the same Five Steps as you would during the rest of your day (see Stop Panic Attacks in Five Steps, which applies just as much to anxiety attacks and any tension too). The first of these steps is ‘know it’s safe’. Only good things can come from letting your body learn to relax. ~Jude

Comments for Why do I sometimes have a panic attack or feel really restless in the middle of meditating?

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Thank you for that explanation!
by: Anonymous

I've had this experience too and what you say completely makes sense - thanks!

Inward thinking
by: Anonymous

I think the panic attack is often an preoccupation with internal signals and body twinges. Your focus needs to come away from your body and you need to become aware of and occupied by external activities. Unfortunately, concentrating of the breath or being in a prayer-like state of mind tunes you in to your body. Perhaps a better strategy would be to open your eyes and focus on a candle, object or sound that is more removed from the seat of the anxiety which is your own body, mind and breath. Additionally I find that taking deep breaths, holding and exhaling require tension in my mouth, tongue and jaw and that is enough to bring on an anxiety/panic attack.

Yes, you make a very good point...
by: Judy

... thank you for your comment. I completely agree that for many people meditating on the breath in particular, but also on body sensations, can be problematic, especially initially. A mantra meditation is a good option for this reason, or as you say, meditating on a sound - sounds of nature and the spaces in-between especially can be very settling.

The most important thing with the breath is to remember to breathe out fully, as this assists with the letting go of tension in the body as a whole.

With meditation, it is two things: practising making the choice to leave any thoughts that arise and return to the focus of your practice and also going into meditation without any expectation - of becoming relaxed or settled or anything else - but instead with a kind of innocence and an attitude of acceptance of whatever arises.

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