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The Road To Fort Worth

Read » Chapter 8: Danville


How To Use Visualization To Calm Panic Attacks

After I experienced my first panic attack in the spring of 1967, I spent many years looking for ways to calm the horrifying fears that overwhelmed me, but I couldn't find any answers because so little was known about the disease in those days. In 1981, I had a remission from the attacks for six and a half years  until the panic attacks returned and were all but unceasing.

In the DSM-III, published in 1980, panic disorder was classified as a disease for the first time by the American Psychiatric Association, and new therapies began to emerge.

In a therapy group that I attended, it was recommended that I learn progressive relaxation and visualization techniques to learn how to manage the attacks.

I bought an audio tape at the book store that taught progressive relaxation and visualization exercises. Two simple concepts made the techniques effective in dealing with anxiety. The first was that anxiety couldn't exist in a state of total relaxation. The second was that the energy required to sustain a panic attack could be diverted. If a person could become distracted, engulfed in another experience during the panic attack, it's energy would be depleted and lessen the severity of the symptoms. Visualization, in theory, could provide the necessary distraction.

I practiced the exercises daily as I lay on my back in bed, tensing a muscle group, slowly inhaling air, holding my breath for a moment, then relaxing my muscles as I slowly exhaled. I repeated the process with each muscle group. When I had finished the exercise, I began my visualization. Day by day, I was building a house on the beach, a wall at a time, imagining gentle waves rolling on shore, the sound of gulls overhead, the smell of the ocean and palm trees rustling in the breeze. I could almost feel the warmth of the sun as I worked, continuing to breathe rhythmically.

One day, I was the first in line waiting for a drawbridge to close and felt trapped between the open grates and the cars behind me. I felt anxiety flood over me and relaxed my legs, torso, neck and closed my eyes. I imagined the house on the beach, rhythmically breathing in and out, continuing to relax as I focused on my visualization. The short beep of a car horn alerted me that the grates had been lowered. The caution gates were lifting, and I engaged the transmission and drove forward. The panic attack had stopped and was replaced by my sense of relief and gratitude for finding a way to control my fear.

Visualization is a self-hypnotic technique to change one's brain rhythms to a calmer, more peaceful state of mind. Prayer, meditation, yoga and relaxation techniques all lead to the same end. Guided Imagery is a technique that leads to a specific destination in visualization. My first sessions involved listening to the prompts of a guide on an audio tape, and later, the house-on-the-beach visualization. Today, I can use any happy, peaceful memory, tune into the experience and achieve a feeling of serenity.

We live in a world overwhelmed by stress. We can find moments of calmness in the midst of our fast-paced lives. Progressive relaxation and visualization can be practiced almost anywhere. It only takes a few minutes to become revitalized.

Copyright ©2012 Michael Jackson Smith


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