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March 05, 2018

Waking up in a panic? Embrace your anxiety and take this advice

Mental Health Anxiety
03052018_PanicAttacksPanel Photos courtesy/Stacey J. Warner

Anxiety at its core is fear of the unknown and fear of losing your life, whether it be physical life or ego-driven.

Has this ever happened to you? You wake up and find yourself in the middle of a panic attack or full of anxiety? Your heart races, your chest tightens, and you can’t catch your breath? It feels like you are going to die and yet you just woke up?

If so, you are not alone. This is more common than you may think.

Many factors can create this situation, including association to past morning stressors, your first thought of the day being negative, fear of being late, a nightmare or stressful dream, or even caffeine withdrawal but there also might be some outside stressors playing a part, like your job, a break-up, children, aging parents, etc.

The zeitgeist of our current times is also a contributing factor to our anxiety. It’s incredibly challenging to navigate the streams of information coming at us all the time but the reality is it’s not going to change so we need to find a way to deal with it. We live in a world where we are easily over stimulated with too much information positive and negative. Perhaps this is why mindfulness has become so fashionable: we are looking for a way to relieve the undercurrent of our anxiety. Being present is the fastest way to release all stress.

Feeling like we are drowning in this information pool and waking up gasping for air is not surprising.

We all have anxiety on some level. It is part of being human. It’s just to what degree and how well can we manage it.

Anxiety at its core is fear of the unknown and fear of losing your life, whether it be physical life or ego-driven. What does it mean to have an ego fear of annihilation as a human? It’s the fear of rejection, humiliation, or the inability to feel true connection with those around us. This is as real to our psyches as actual death.

For example, let’s say you post something on social media before going to bed. The next morning you wake up with your heart racing and you’re gasping for air. Without even thinking, you reach for your phone like it’s a lifesaver. All this and you are barely awake. That’s a lot to go through. Most likely your subconscious mind was racing through how many likes you got or didn’t get, and your well-trained brain took the panic as a real physical threat and woke you up to save yourself.

The scenario above can be replaced with calls or texts from bosses, girlfriends/boyfriends, children away at college, aging parents, projects being turned in, tests taken, etc.

So what to do when you wake in a panic or with a lot of anxiety?

Acknowledge and accept you are having a moment of panic or anxiety.

Pause and become aware of your surroundings, take in the room, feel the bed underneath you, your head on the pillow, and put your hands together to feel your hands.

Take deep breaths. This will slow down the body and relieve the fight or flight response. By doing this you are actually communicating with your parasympathetic nervous system. Remember, if there truly was danger, you wouldn’t be able to relax and breathe. Your body has to catch up with your conscious mind.

Say a mantra, it can be as simple as, everything is OK.

Thoughts are not facts. Just because you have a thought, doesn’t mean it’s true. Try to catch the thought and create the space to release it before attaching to it.

Once you have calmed yourself, take time to see if you can figure out the cause of the anxiety. Was it a dream? Was it social media? Was it a boyfriend? Money? Children? Employee? Boss? If you are able to trace back the root of the anxiety, this is when it becomes a tool because now you can take conscious steps to change what is stressing you.

When I was waking up with daily anxiety attacks, I owned a very young horse that I was riding every day. It took me awhile to figure out that this was the root of my anxiety. In fact, it wasn’t until I went away for the weekend, had my trainer ride her and I didn’t wake up with anxiety that it became clear my inexperience as a rider and the animal's young age was probably too much for me to handle. Then I was able to look at possibilities and make a decision that would work best. The decision I made was to re-home her.

It is fantasy to believe that one day we will eradicate anxiety from our lives. It is also fantasy that we can only be happy without anxiety. The truth is we can be happy and grow by understanding and embracing it. Anxiety is our body’s way of telling us something isn’t right, even if it’s only our thinking that needs to change. But, in fact, changing our thinking might be the toughest thing to do. Remember to be kind and patient with yourself, seek help if you need it and a daily meditation practice never hurt anyone.

Stacey J. Warner is a certified life coach, equus coach and yoga teacher. She received her bachelor of arts in drama from the University of Washington and currently resides in Los Angeles. She is the founder of The Intensives for Radical Healing, Consciousness, and Grace. Her one passion in life is to lessen the suffering of others through deep inner work and laughter. To learn more, visit:

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