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When Panic Strikes: “I Felt Like A Passenger In A Car Driven By A Mad Driver”

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By Vivekanandan Balaguru:

There is a silent epidemic going on before the eyes of the general public. Millions of people are suffering from anxiety, depression, fear, panic attacks, and many other diseases related to the daily stress of life. As a society, we all wear a mask that projects to others that we have good control of our life. If we show our pain, we are considered weak and not able to fit into societal expectations. The pressure of fitting in leads us to wear this mask, more so for people who are suffering and cannot handle their pain. Desperately wanting help, many turn to Internet Support Groups because then they can create an alias and openly express their problems.

Image Credit: JustCallMe_♥Bethy♥_
Image Credit: JustCallMe_♥Bethy♥_

I went through this same route myself. I wore the mask, hid my problems, and participated in many Internet forums. Having done that, now I see the time has come for me to bring these issues to the attention of everyone and remove the social stigma associated with them. Awareness is essential to the process of healing. In most cases this is not a disease, it is rather due to people going through a life transition process that often occurs in midlife. A spiritual awakening has common symptoms.

Here is my journal of experiences based on the notes I took while applying my new insights that I received in daily life.

Being truly alive means being filled with love. Only when we are fully alive and filled with love will we feel complete and be free of suffering, fear, and pain. If our life isn’t like this, then how can we get there? Everyone is born in this state but very few continue to live in that state. As part of growing up in the name of learning and gaining knowledge, we lose the essence of love. It is inherent in today’s culture with its increasing levels of stress and distractions of sustenance, survival, and the everyday worries of life. Our natural state is suppressed even more.

I was leading a normal life with everyday challenges, struggles, and stress, with occasional happiness. I would rate it as an average life, not only for the material success but also for the quality of life I experienced. In the eyes of others, I would be seen as a typical man with a happy family, decent job as software engineer, and having the necessities to lead a comfortable middle class life. I was content with this self-image.

But things turned interesting…

It was May 6, 2010 and it’s hard for me to forget that day, it was the day when the US Stock Market crashed about ten percent during the intraday trading and later recovered most of the losses. It was a wild day in the stock market and later the wild swing in the market on that day was called the “Flash Crash”.

I was very active in trading as I was looking for ways to get more money in my life. I did not make big trades but I would make one or two trade per week. On this particular day, I had high hopes. I had heavy bets on a single company that was going to release its quarterly release that afternoon after market close.

A typical day for me then was to wake up around 6 AM before the market opened, browse the news, and check my emails and then go for a run. I had my smart phone with me all the time so checking the stock ticker was kind of a natural instinct every ten or fifteen minutes. In between the commute to work I was tuned into the business radio shows, which give a running commentary on the market. I was very hooked all day long through the smart phones, computer, radio show, or television shows and my mood would be in accord with what was happening in that world.

On that Thursday, the market was not looking good. It was going down in the morning and then there was the huge crash around noon. The anxiety and the stress that came with the crash compounded by a very poor quarterly report from the company, in which I had invested, put me into a deep depression. Compounding that situation was a rehearsal for a community event in the evening. In the middle of the show rehearsal, I felt faint and kind of dizzy. Without attracting anyone’s attention, I slowly sat down on a nearby chair. From nowhere, an intense fear came over me with heavy breathing and a feeling of total loss of control. Initially I thought it was a heart attack but somehow knew this was something different. Even though I had minor attacks like that before, this attack was full blown almost incapacitating me from doing anything. But I knew that I wanted to be alone. I slowly managed to walk to my car in the parking lot and sat down for a while. The attack lasted for almost an hour and the remnants continued for an hour afterwards. I did not know how to react to the attack but it was a real shock. Losing total control of yourself for a few minutes with fear fully taking you over is very scary. It was a serious wake up call in my life.

I did not know what happened to me that day, but I had to understand what initiated the attack. After checking with the doctors I figured out it was a panic attack. After more research and searching on the Internet, I learned quite a bit about these attacks. Doctors advised me to stay away from stressful situations to avoid a recurrence.

But the attacks randomly persisted and I felt I had to drastically change my lifestyle habits, diet, and exercise so that they could be brought under control. The attacks could be triggered when I was outside in public places, so I had nowhere to hide. A couple of times the attacks were totally out of control and I had to check in to the emergency room, only to find out that everything was normal. The medical world treated it like a disease and they prescribed anti-depressants to bring it under control. I decided not to take the medication. I wanted to heal myself holistically. I would also suggest to others that they be very wary of the placebo presented by the medical community through medication. I encourage you to research and find possible alternative solutions as opposed to just taking the easy way out with pills that mask the underlying cause.

Having grown up with the belief that people can achieve anything, I was not going to swallow the anti-depressant pill as my first option. From my upbringing, I was aware of two choices. My father, who had inspired me throughout my life, healed himself of recurring asthma attacks by practicing breathing exercises and learning yoga. He did this by religiously practicing it while he was in his seventies. On the other hand, my mother who was depressed could not get out of it, even though she tried to heal herself with yoga, meditation and walking. She finally let anti-depressants be her only savior. She did get better and her depression lifted, but her dependency on the anti-depressants did not go away. Given this background and being a spectator of the lives of my parents, it was natural to choose the route my father took. I started to look for healing through meditation, yoga, physical exercises and diet. I was ready to make every change needed in order to heal myself.

I altered my lifestyle to focus and maintain control, however, the attacks did not abate, instead they began to recur more frequently. I had to make some drastic changes; I did not have a choice. I decided to stay away from the stock market, switching the radio away from the business news. Instead of running daily, I did slow walking to bring the adrenaline rush under control. I changed my diet to eating lighter foods so that I never felt heavy. I also dropped all the distracting habits that made me lose conscious control, including alcohol. I read a book that would give me peace before going to bed which became a habit. These changes gave me better control over my life but there was no reprieve from my panic attacks.

The challenge during these attacks was the flight or fight response which was naturally triggered by my body. I did not have the control of this mechanism. I felt like a passenger in a car driven by a mad driver. The symptoms of heavy breathing, fainting, losing control of myself and feeling that something terrible was going to happen, scared the hell out of me. After a few attacks, I realized I was not going to die and I would survive. After facing many attacks, I figured out that they were illusions created by the mind and the attack was temporary from which I would recover. Some days I would wake up early, go for a walk or run 5 miles and have a typical breakfast. All would seem perfectly normal, and then bam! it would hit me again. Often when I was about to go out somewhere, I would fall victim to the symptoms and get into the panic anxiety mode.

I chose to fight the occurrences with will power and this played a key role. However, having tried this repeatedly, it didn’t help me cross the bridge to the other side. One of the best pieces of advice I had was to integrate the attacks into my life and let them happen without fighting against them. It sounded very simple but my automatic fight or flight response and conditioned mind never let it happen that way. The struggles continued for months, but the trust that I would overcome it helped carry me through those tough days.

Everyone Switched Countries, I Switched To A Different State Of Being

In May 2011, I was going through the naturalization process to become a United States citizen. The day to officially take the oath arrived. I had the usual jitters wondering whether a panic attack might strike me during the ceremony. That day, I settled in my seat amid thousands of people in the auditorium. As soon as the lights were switched off and the video presentation started, the butterflies in my stomach started to fly. Was this the beginning of another panic attack?

This day was unique. I had no choice but to fight the panic attack due to the circumstances. My seating arrangement meant I could not escape and if I had left the hall it would have made it more painful to go through the process again. However, even with these considerations something that never happened before happened that day. My nervous system, which normally went into the autonomic fight or flight response when the attack started, did not. Therefore, what the system usually perceived as an attack changed and let it go without responding. This happened as soon as I stopped fighting it.

It was a unique experience of feeling a sudden rush of energy through the body while externally looking calm sitting with other people. I realized I had undergone a major shift in my handling of panic attacks internally while externally I underwent a change of citizenship. Both the internal shift and external milestone happening on the same day was a significant turnaround for me. At this time it was not clear to me why this happened, but later I saw how it worked. I understood there was an energy that was activated in my body and my natural instinct to fight it caused my nervous system to treat is as a threat and put my body in the fight or flight response. This response created a variety of symptoms in my body, which scared the hell out of me, and it was very hard for me to break the attack.

Due to the way I had conditioned my mind and body; my natural response mechanism couldn’t handle the additional energy that was generated. On that day, it was the very first time I had experienced it fully. The energy started to shoot from my hip and it went to my heart, circled around the heart and then came back to the point where it started. The feeling of the energy flow was immediate and with so much fear, I could not enjoy it much. But, once you let the energy flow without blocks, the energy started to go from the hip to heart and circled back. The lesser resistance offered the higher the energy flow was smooth.

Here Is The Synopsis Of My Healing Process In Stages

This was my process to heal panic attacks, but my understanding is they are generic and you can apply them to any part of your lives. This is because the root of all challenges are the same. Whatever you do involves your mind and body and if you have a way to handle and understand that better, then anything external to us is easy to solve. If you win the war with yourself then outside reality reflects the inner victory. Whether you have a serious illness, a challenge in your relationship, financial hardships or bankruptcy in the business, all these can be solved with the following understanding.

1. Initial Fear: Why me?

When life throws a challenge at us the first response that we have is: “Why me“?

What actually happened to me was I had disconnected myself from being part of a universal being and lived as a separate entity possibly for a long time. So when it looked like I had a disease, my first reaction was: “What did I do wrong“? Instead of looking at the real problem I started to look at why I had been singled out to suffer this condition. That was a very natural reaction for my belief system from younger days was constructed that way. By relating to this challenge and finding the root cause it became my stepping-stone to major breakthroughs and led me to the next stage of life. It provided me choices to enter new routes that I had not explored before. It gave me choices of new exercise regimen, diet, and reading habits that impacted my life for the greater good.

Life’s challenges often cause a shock to our system when we first encounter them, but it’s important not to let them drag us down too long. Anyone who goes through a sudden shock in life whether it is a cancer diagnosis or a lottery win returns to normal life after a period of anxiety, excitement, pain or happiness. If we are a sad person even after we win a lottery we will return to that state after our initial excitement goes away. Others have the opposite default state of happiness and a shock like death of a loved one will cause a short span of sorrow after which they will return to their happy state. Therefore, it’s the internal being that we set as base that forms the state of our lives and dictates how we live for the majority of the time. What these shocks offer us is the chance to change the priorities in life and get more aligned with our inner self.

2. Blessing in Disguise

Whether we accept it or not, every challenge is a blessing in disguise. It was very hard for me to accept this fact when I was going through the challenge. Irrespective of how painful it was I now see the wealth of lessons learned about life, about myself and about the understanding of the people involved. After you get through the initial shock to the system, look to see what was the blessing in disguise was offered to you. In order to find this you need to dig digger to find the blessing. When you first start this might take years to determine, but after some time it is obvious and you see it sooner.

3. Embracing the Change

The turnaround happened for me after I accepted the challenge and started to see things as they were. In life everyone is susceptible to all the challenges of life. However we try to protect ourselves, we are always exposed. This is acceptance of the problem. It helped me to handle the issue without much guilt or pain. This understanding meant I didn’t have to blame the situation, blame another person or even worse blame myself. I accepted it as reality. The challenge was there for me to face head on. I thought this is what I had signed up for and this is not the end of the world for me.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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