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Recurrent panic, energy in chest area, nervous system sensitivity - advice

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Hello everyone, this is the first time I’ve posted on a meditation forum so there’s a bit to say – I’ll try and be concise.

I just left my 6th 10-day retreat (4 Goenka, 1 Thai forest, 1 anapanasati) early for the first time – I left 4 days in – and I’ve got a few questions I’d very much appreciate to hear some opinions on.

Background: Ten years ago I had what I suspect was an A&P event at a rave through mixing psychedelics – I don’t remember having a bad trip, although in hindsight it must have been overwhelming - maybe I blocked some trauma. 2 weeks later an alcohol hangover triggered an acute episode of DP/DR and anxiety, and that night I had a vivid dream that I had been shot and killed. It felt like things had irreversibly changed. I then developed hppd which has lasted until today, and the next 2 years were ones of existential despair, anxiety and feeling like I’d “broken” my brain. Classic 'dark night' stuff in retrospect.

A friend recommended a 10-day Goenka retreat, which was a lifesaver. Incredibly intense, I had a huge A&P on day 3 or 4 and had some major therapeutic releasing of some childhood trauma. As I was still new to meditation and hadn’t yet come across pragmatic dharma, I didn't practice much in between retreats (since meditation brought up too much agitation and so I couldn’t stick with it) but went to 4 more over the next few years.

In general, retreats have been exhausting affairs, with a lot of agitation, fear and energetic releases, interspersed with short periods of stable attention and good TMI stage 4ish practice. What tends to happen is that as my concentration develops, my heart rate will at some stage begin to beat more powerfully in the background until there is a spontaneous energetic release or rush from my chest and there will be sensations of panic that last for a minute or two until it subsides. I’ve gotten better at accepting these panic episodes and not assigning a story to them, but they seem relentless and it’s tiring. It’s also difficult not to have aversion to my heartbeat and the prospect of another impending panic episode which takes hours to resolve.

The first time I brought my attention to my heart and the sensations in my chest on retreat no. 4 (I think on previous retreats my mind was wandering too much to really access this material) the racing heart and energy rush from my chest to the top of my head was so intense I thought I might die, it was pretty traumatising (or was a retraumatisation). I should add, that at no time has there been a reexperiencing of any traumatic memories, it’s almost like pure nervous system arousal. Leaving that retreat I noticed swirling sensations in my shoulders that lasted a few weeks that seemed to coincide with stress.

For retreat no. 5 I was prepared to face these panicky sensations with openness and compassion, had three similar episodes that were less intense, but then left feeling pretty wired, as though my nervous system was burnt out. It was a 7-day anapansati retreat and so there were no body scans.

On my most recent retreat (goenka), I resolved to be gentle with myself. I encountered the strong heartbeat and chest sensations on the first full day. A strong heartbeat slowly built up for hours until a mini panic episode and then back to calmer stage 4 practice for a few hours. Rinse and repeat. On day 4 I had a more powerful episode during the evening discourse. As I lay in bed that night, I noticed I had pulsatile tinnitus (in time with the heartbeat) and decided to leave the next day as I wasn’t prepared to rev up my nervous system over and over again. I have also been suffering from neck spasms (possibly posture related) and associated ear crackling/tinnitus since last year, which also fed into my decision to leave as I thought I might make my tinnitus worse. Otherwise, I left in good spirits, it felt like the right decision to be gentler with myself.

Outside of practice, I’ve been seeing a Reichian therapist since last November which has been very helpful and powerful, and have been alcohol free for 2 months – previously I would binge to have fun at weekends and be more sociable as I have some social anxiety.

My thinking is that since I’ve actually been keeping a semi-regular daily practice since January, the fact I’ve been cleaning myself up from alcohol and had good progress with a therapist means that I’m much more aware, or ‘closer’ to the fear/chest sensations and so this is why I encountered such strong experiences early on in my most recent retreat.

Some questions:
  • Does this sound like classic TMI stage 4 purifications? My equanimity is quite good on retreat and I don’t really have panic symptoms in daily life, rather some mild social anxiety.
  • When I investigate chest sensations non-judgmentally they tend to swell and move, they always seem ready to burst upwards but there's little sense it's opening the heart area. Is this just the process of heart chakra opening?
  • Should I cultivate piti more to gladden my mind? I tend to get early stage piti moreso on the out breath.
  • Should I respect my trauma, or whatever ‘this’ is, and avoid longer retreats for now?
  • Does this sound normal for someone with a history of anxiety and trauma?
  • Should I find a teacher, or should I find a therapist experienced in the intersection of trauma and vipassana?
  • Is this classic dark night territory? Is increased metta meditation enough of an antidote to this? I struggle somewhat with generating metta but have a firm intention to persevere.
  • Is it normal to have such strong energetic phenomena and intense sensations of panic even though my thoughts are quite calm and I’m not spiralling into story/narrative worry?

There’s more I can say about the specifics of my practice on retreat and in daily life (please feel free to ask), but I’m more interested at this stage to hear some initial thoughts. It’s tough for me to have much metta or see too many fruits from the practice when I encounter such distracting/strong experiences from my chest area and I’m so aware of my heart. When each panic episode resolves, I’m just left with more awareness of my heart and a sense of shaky relief – not much catharsis.

I think my fears are that somehow my hppd or childhood/drug-related trauma makes my nervous system ‘different’ or more vulnerable, and that it’s unhealthy to dive too deeply into it. I’m also aware of Willoughby Britton’s work on people who struggle with longer silent retreats.

I’m also aware that I have aversion to these chest sensations and panic episodes, and that there is resistance there. Looking back, it’s also true that my practice has led to steady improvements in my wellbeing, concentration and wisdom and so I wonder if I should just plug on with the right attitude.

Any words of wisdom would be very much appreciated, thank you to all.

RE: Recurrent panic, energy in chest area, nervous system sensitivity - adv
Answer
6/19/19 11:35 PM as a reply to Sasha Johnson.
Hi Sasha,

Although you asked this question sometimes ago, I thought to chime in on a part of your question.  You may be interested in reading this thread where I wrote to someone experiencing something similar.

It seems like there's quite a few people who do Goenka-type practice that gets these intense energy experiences.   This is most likely unleashed due to having had a deeper insight into impermance.  To complete the picture, however, insight into emptiness, first of the subject or self and then to the rest of the phenomena in your experience is said to be needed.

One of your questions:


  • When I investigate chest sensations non-judgmentally they tend to swell and move, they always seem ready to burst upwards but there's little sense it's opening the heart area. Is this just the process of heart chakra opening?

is interesting to me, because you seem to be describing something similar to the people who do a specific kind of (non-judgmental) investigation into the sense of "self".  

The following book contains accounts of those people who carry out this investigation using a method called the 2-Part Formula.  You may wish to compare your experience with theirs.

Awake! Handbook of Awakening

For them, the sensation that you describe, often in the chest, moves around and gets focused around head or behind the eyes.  As the investigation matures, the charge associated with the sensation become neutralized, and in its place, a kind of space, a natural wakefulness, opens up, which is especially evident behind your eyes or in around your head.    

With further practice, this natural wakefulness will permeate your experience more and more, and anxiety, fear, panick attacks, etc. will be met from that place of wakefulness rather than from the closed sense of "I" or "me" which used to be the reference point for most of experience in life.


Anyway I hope this helps.

RE: Recurrent panic, energy in chest area, nervous system sensitivity - adv
Answer
6/20/19 4:56 PM as a reply to Sasha Johnson.
Sasha Johnson:
  • Does this sound like classic TMI stage 4 purifications? My equanimity is quite good on retreat and I don’t really have panic symptoms in daily life, rather some mild social anxiety.
  • When I investigate chest sensations non-judgmentally they tend to swell and move, they always seem ready to burst upwards but there's little sense it's opening the heart area. Is this just the process of heart chakra opening?
  • Should I cultivate piti more to gladden my mind? I tend to get early stage piti moreso on the out breath.
  • Should I respect my trauma, or whatever ‘this’ is, and avoid longer retreats for now?
  • Does this sound normal for someone with a history of anxiety and trauma?
  • Should I find a teacher, or should I find a therapist experienced in the intersection of trauma and vipassana?
  • Is this classic dark night territory? Is increased metta meditation enough of an antidote to this? I struggle somewhat with generating metta but have a firm intention to persevere. 
  • Is it normal to have such strong energetic phenomena and intense sensations of panic even though my thoughts are quite calm and I’m not spiralling into story/narrative worry?


Reading your account, I feel strongly inclined to urge you to be cautious. Keep a daily practice that combines seated with walking meditation and a grounding practice such as tai chi, and don’t rely on long, silent retreats as a backbone of your practice. I’ve had energy rushes and strong, loud heartbeat sensations, as well as some of the other things you mention, but not to the same degree. I don’t think this is a classic or normal dark night, although I’m not sure what such a thing would be since there’s so much variety, but it sounds like stuff is having trouble moving through your system in a way that you can integrate with the rest of your life. I’ve also had problems with anxiety and panic, and while it’s important ultimately to face that stuff, it’s better not to flood yourself with too much of it. 

My firmest recommendation is that you work with a teacher. Goenka retreats don’t offer a whole lot of guidance, so I’ve been told, so I’d get going with a teacher who can help you navigate this stuff and also recommend the kinds of retreat experiences that will be best for you. My best wishes to you. 

RE: Recurrent panic, energy in chest area, nervous system sensitivity - adv
Answer
6/21/19 4:41 AM as a reply to Sasha Johnson.
I would say that the panic attack experience is quite normal, at least for shorter periods, but normality isn’t exactly my strongest suit so I might be wrong. If you are uncertain, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from longer retreats, though, especially retreats with little individual support.

Energetic phenomena is something that I have most of the time. I don’t mind them. They are just normal to me. Spasms could be kriyas, something that is quite common in practice at earlier stages. If so, they will pass.

Great that you take care of yourself! Best wishes for your practice and for your wellbeing!

RE: Recurrent panic, energy in chest area, nervous system sensitivity - adv
Answer
6/21/19 4:43 AM as a reply to Yuki Saka.
Yuki, the development you described seems very familiar to me although I have done completely different practices.

RE: Recurrent panic, energy in chest area, nervous system sensitivity - adv
Answer
6/23/19 10:40 PM as a reply to Sasha Johnson.
I also wanted to add that I found devotional work (prayer, deity yoga, guru yoga etc) to be very beneficial in harmonizing energy imbalances. 

For instance, if you are a Theravada person, you may try reciting a prayer of homage to the buddha (or dhamma or sanga), and then just surrender and relax into the energy of the prayer.  You may find that the energy coming from the prayer is different to the wild and coarse energy unleashed by a willed practice.  These more subtle energy (which is actually energetic aspect of awareness or emptiness itself) may harmnoize your system.  I found the following article helpful in understanding the relationship between coarse energy of prana and subtle energy of awareness:

Becoming master of pranayama or tsa-lung

In the path I am on, tuning into the energy of a master like buddha is a core practice (called guru yoga), which I find very healing and balances with the relatively drier practice of insight meditation (remember the balance between faith and wisdom?).

Also, finding a teacher to work with you personally is highly recommended.

RE: Recurrent panic, energy in chest area, nervous system sensitivity - adv
Answer
6/21/19 9:31 AM as a reply to Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö.
Linda, it's nice to hear that you found it familier.  I was reading your practice log and quite resonated with your experience of cycling through the stages, as well as your development of affinity to more open awareness/less intentional based practices.

Wish you luck on your path!