The Spiritual Meaning of Panic Attacks

The Spiritual Meaning of Panic Attacks


Panic attacks can be scary and require care, but they can also teach us a lot about ourselves. Explore the spiritual meaning of panic attacks.

A panic attack is a sudden, extreme, and concentrated experience of anxiety. All the physical symptoms of fear can appear at once: racing heartbeat, cold sweat, hyperventilating, constriction in the chest, and so on. Panic attacks are not life-threatening, but they can feel that way—specifically, they can feel like a heart attack.

If this is a recurring issue for you, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about options for managing stress and anxiety; together, you can see if there are treatments that can help and ensure that you don’t have any underlying medical conditions.

Alongside that, however, let’s think about the spiritual meaning of panic attacks.

Learning from Fear

A panic attack is an extreme feeling of fear, often without an obviously extreme source of danger. There is generally a trigger, but we’re not always consciously aware of that trigger. Panic attacks can be a symptom of trauma: That feeling of not being safe could be left over from a past experience that is unresolved. Treating trauma in this way means bringing the nervous system into the safety of the present moment.

Fear is an important emotion to listen to, and when we can get a clear sense of what it’s pointing to, we can figure out if we actually need to get away or if it’s simply a reminder of a time when we were unsafe. You may not be able to reflect while you are panicking, but when you feel calm enough, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the panic trying to tell you?

  • Is there an unresolved fear in your present or past?

  • Do you have anything to genuinely fear in your life right now?

  • What might help you feel more in control and connected to your power?

Not Feeling Safe

We often think of safety as an objective fact: Am I in immediate physical danger or not? In a way, yes, we can deem a certain environment to be relatively safe or not, but as some of us know from experience, there is no such thing as being 100 percent safe because we can’t tell the future. Safety is a feeling; a felt sense, an inner knowing. Panic attacks are a complete loss of a sense of safety. Since it is a feeling and not an objective fact, we can cultivate the feeling of safety in our lives.

  • What does physical safety look like? What about emotional safety?

  • What is the feeling of safety for you? What does it feel like in your body?

  • What are places, people, or contexts that help you cultivate that feeling of safety?

  • Do you feel safe within your body?

  • Can your body be a safe place? For example, do you feed your body adequately, listen to its needs, and attend to it when it’s sore or tender?

Protection from Feelings

Panic is an extreme version of anxiety, and one of the functions of anxiety is to protect us from deeper emotions that may be overwhelming or destabilizing. If we don’t have a safe way to manage big feelings when they come up (especially if you learned at an early age that big feelings are not okay), the nervous system may choose to panic instead.

  • Are you honest with yourself when your emotions arise?

  • If you suspect that your panic is trying to protect you from an emotion, do you have any idea what that emotion might be?

  • Are you going through a hard time right now or have gone through some things in the past that don’t feel fully processed?

  • Do you have safe spaces and/or people with whom you can fully express and feel your emotions?

Heartbreak and Unresolved Grief

Panic attacks can feel a lot like a heart attack, with energy concentrated around the heart and the lungs. This can mean there is a buildup of unresolved grief in your body—of heartbreak.

  • Is your heart broken?

  • Was your heart broken in the past?

  • If your heart could speak for itself, what would it say?

  • What can you do to attend to the needs of your heart?

Disconnection from the Body

Panic attacks are powerful physical experiences. We don’t always know why we’re panicking, but the body insists we stop everything and pay attention. The body may be trying to get your attention; it may want more of a relationship with you on a day-to-day level.

  • Do you listen to your body?

  • Do you find that you tend to be more in your head than your body?

  • Are there emotions that you tend to talk yourself out of rather than embrace feeling?

  • If your body could talk to your mind, what might it say?

Many of these questions are asking you to divert your attention to your body and the panic itself. When there’s panic, there’s often a sense of distrust and betrayal within the body. It can exacerbate our desire to avoid feeling in our bodies. But the body is taking a stand and deeply wants that attention. You may need to take it slow, perhaps working with a counselor, to gently listen to your body and trust that it has its reasons for talking to you the way it does. When the body feels listened to and doesn’t need to overwhelm us, it may not push us towards panic when it recognizes a trigger in the environment or an internal emotion.

There are many grounding practices you can do to slip out of a trigger and back to the present. This can include deep breathing, focusing on certain items in the environment that indicate safety, consciously counting to 100, and so on. But often the best way to manage a panic attack is to allow it to flow through us. Trust that it has its own wisdom. The more we listen, the less the panic will need to arise.

Support yourself with these breathwork exercises for anxiety.

The Spiritual Meaning of Panic Attacks

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