A reeling mind trapped inside an autonomous body—-that’s how I would describe a full-blown anxiety attack.
The most recent anxiety attack I experienced snuck under the radar during a trip to the grocery store. I chatted with my toddler as we strolled the isles looking for a variety of potato that never seems to be in the last place I looked (it’s purple and excellent in guacamole).
I glanced up from my son’s gaze to realize I was one of nearly 50 busy shoppers in the produce section alone. Without approval, my brain catapulted into an insubordinate calculation: people per section, section per store, the number of employees in the main section of the store, plus the back warehouse area, adding the mulling, floating lobsters to the final count for good measure.
There I was, a single entity, expected to navigate through all of this motion, all of this energy. People rushed through make-shift lanes, cutting past one another, carving deliberate pathways through all of this peaceful, resting vegetation—- it just didn’t make sense together.
My heart, erratically thumping its way out of my chest, was failing me. I was sure of it. The lights, belligerently dousing produce with unnatural light, hurt my suddenly sensitive eyes. My breathing is labored. Is this an asthma attack? I don’t have asthma. Do I? I’m sweating. Did I just start? or just notice? It’s so hot in here, it’s cruel. Someone really needs to do something about this heat.
I looked at my little guy, happily smashing his two favorite trains (James the red engine and Molly the yellow) in the front of the cart, and did what any strong, capable, almost-thirty year old woman would do: I bailed.
I left nearly $150.00 worth of groceries in my cart in the middle of the store, abandoning it with zero remorse.
I scooped up my child with haste and hightailed it to my car (a Ford Escape, amusingly enough).
I was met with tiny protests once Jameson found himself secured in his car seat—I had promised him strawberries, which sat forsaken in our cart. Even with the brewing tantrum, I was remarkably more capable of handling the anxiety that had crippled me in the store. A three-year-old was manageable, even when he wasn’t. Whatever just happened in that store, was not.
Had I been in the car by myself, I may have sped off in a fury of tears, spasmodic breaths and overwhelming heat. On this day, I had precious cargo in the backseat, still complaining about his lack of fruit. I needed to rationalize. I needed to reason my way out of this overwhelming urge to collapse on the floor and wait to die.
My head siphoned twenty thousand ideas, hypothesis and rebuttals into the tiny space that is conscious thought and I launched into an even more overwhelmed state, until:
Stop. Just stop.
Return to your body.
Return to your body.
The answer, already sitting with me in the vehicle, was demanding attention—my necessary return.
Return to your breath.
The breath you control—the breath you make steady and slow. Breathe beautiful, deliberate breaths. Feel your lungs expand and feel your belly rise with each mindful pull. Slowly. Slowly. Return to your breath, and trust in its duties.
Steady breaths that feed your cells with essential oxygen. Breathe in and feel your rib cage expand, reaching wide, reaching up and out. Feel the air move through your nostrils, down the throat, the larynx, the trachea, until it reaches those welcoming lungs.
Fill up. Fill your lungs with steady inhalations, until you are bursting with oxygenated air.
Surrender to the exchange. These marvelous breaths, like a symphony of movement, orchestrate the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Like magic, it’s happening. Breathe in and red blood cells secure a fresh reserve of oxygen and relinquish the toxic carbon dioxide.
Exhale. Breathe out slowly, slowly, and feel your lungs and stomach return. Feel your ribcage shrink back to its resting dimensions and then exhale more. Contract the abdomen gently and push every last toxin out of your grateful lungs and into the atmosphere. Breathe out the air that no longer serves you, slowly, steadily, and create space for the oxygen rich air to follow.
Visualize those red blood cells, plump with oxygen racing toward your heart center.
Now, return to your heart.
Listen to the steadfast, regular beating of your heart as it accepts the life that you provided through those deep, unfaltering breaths. Witness the beating at it slows and steadies—there’s no pounding, no panic here—to a soft, rhythmic tempo.
Listen to your heart as it tirelessly pushes oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. Rest your hand on your chest and feel the strength behind each muscle contraction as valves open and close.
Feel the heart fill with blood, rushing past valves and filling ventricles. Marvel at this temporary storehouse, this keeper of Qi.
Wait for the contraction—the atria, the ventricles—as rich blood rushes to every waiting cell in your body.
Wait for you body to respond to the messages this magnificent beating heart and these breaths, so full of intention, are sending. You are safe, you are cared for, and this protection is with you all the time.
Guide the inhalations, guide the exhalations. Allow the peace to take over once again; return to your breath.
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~Ed: Kate Bartolotta
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