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Dharma Diagnostic Clinic, aka "What was that?"

What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...

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Hello, all - I'm in rather a curious place in my practice and life and wondered if anyone might have insights to share as to where I might be and what, if anything, I might do about it.

For background, I was generally in a massively unhappy period of my life for about the last two years. Life stuff was just not feeling all that great, to put it mildly, and looking back it seems like I was probably also touring the dukkha nanas over the last four to six months on top of it. Then things changed incredibly...but not completely...

While serving on retreat, I gradually melted into a place of ease, where I was able to accept and roll with what was. After about two weeks of that, I actually started feeling not only at a deeper and more sustained peace than I may have ever known, but real happiness over nothing in particular...even giddiness, childlike joy and playfulness. However, that's me when I'm awake.

At night I am having problems. The first two nights of this wonderful happiness streak, I woke up at 4:30am with panic attacks. Each night since then I have had nightmares relating to trauma. This rather sucks, since these are the same symptoms I struggled with nightly for about 3 or 4 years straight in my early to mid-twenties, and so I know from experience that it won't take long for sleep disturbances like this to take their toll if they continue.

First off, the what-is-that question...if I were to go by my daytime experiences I'd say I'm probably somewhere around the 11th nana or further, since I do feel that I have a newfound clarity about what I am doing, as well as faith and commitment to it...but then what about the nightmares and panic attacks? Are they indicative of anything where the dhamma is concerned, or is it just the brain of a trauma survivor not quite trusting yet that the other shoe is not going to drop just because I am suddenly "too happy"?

Next up, the what-do-I-do-with-this question...it's easy enough to find advice on what to do about nightmares themselves. There are pages and pages on the internet basically giving the exact same (mostly sound, though generic) advice they give about anything - watch your diet, get some exercise, relax, practice good sleep hygiene, think good thoughts, keep a journal, lather, rinse, repeat, and if all else fails here are some little pink pills with cute names that'll patch you right up - "two in the mouth," as a young George Carlin would've quipped... So there's no need for me to ask for guidance on that aspect of it. But practice-wise, is there any way to leverage these experiences for as long as I do have them for the benefit of my further establishment in the dhamma?

Thanks, everybody.

RE: What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...
Answer
3/17/13 9:59 PM as a reply to Lanakila Pukana La Iesu.
I'm a beginner in terms of meditation, but maybe I can help...

Have you considered the bit that panic attacks may be trying to teach or tell you something? Have you tried being mindful during the panic attacks? Are the symptoms purely physical? Maybe if you describe what happens and your state of mind/understanding during them, it would help us gauge where you're at.

I know in my dreams I've had some serious fears come up. Nightmares are often way more intense than real life and it can be very hard to step out of the moment to realize "this is a dream". In your case, it sounds like they are memories or flashbacks coming to haunt you. Maybe you can eventually get to the point where you realize that they are nothing more than illusions? Scary, upsetting illusions that can cause real pain, but illusions nonetheless.

In general, though, the only real solution I've found is to just either wait it out or to try to accept the fear as is.

From my understanding -- if the cause of the panic attacks is physical, you probably can't stop them from happening. Imagine it like getting sick with a cold. Your body is gonna deal with the stress of the illness in a particular way, by coughing, sneezing, having a fever. You can't control that. In the case of anxiety, you're not exactly gonna stop the physical symptoms like sweating, shaking, etc... but you can learn to accept the reality and not add to your suffering.

Does that make any sense?

~~ Alternatively, you might also want to look at other reasons for the cyclical panic attacks. Are you getting enough nutrition and exercising well enough? Are there stresses in your life that you aren't addressing for whatever reason? Before delving too deeply into the mind-stuff, just try to be certain that it's not just your body going through a rough time.

RE: What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...
Answer
3/17/13 11:45 PM as a reply to Lara D.
Have you considered the bit that panic attacks may be trying to teach or tell you something? Have you tried being mindful during the panic attacks? Are the symptoms purely physical? Maybe if you describe what happens and your state of mind/understanding during them, it would help us gauge where you're at.


In the case of the panic attacks, what happens is I wake up suddenly out of what seems to have been perfectly good, sound sleep, with my heart racing and my muscles feeling tense. It happens quickly enough that I can't tell whether the emotional panic was there before the physical symptoms, or whether the feeling of panic is a response to being jolted awake by heart palpitations and tension. I don't know of any lifestyle-related physical cause for this, since I was practically free of panic attacks for many years and nothing has changed in the last several days...except that I've been happy for a change.

With regard to the nightmares, I think it's quite likely that they're a manifestation of my mind trying to deal with situations I'm not doing anything about. Unfortunately I'm not doing anything about those situations because there is nothing productive and safe I can do about them. If I could go lucid I could probably use the dhamma in a dream the same way I do in waking life, but I seldom go lucid.

I guess another way to look at this is that I'm being presented with dhamma challenges when I'm at my most vulnerable. I don't know about anybody else but when I'm dead-to-the-world asleep, or suddenly awakened from it, I'm not likely to instantly think "this too shall change." But there are those lifestyles where it's expected, and really necessary, to be able to respond to a stressor in a functional, conditioned way, no matter what time of day or night the need arises. Firefighters and military personnel, for example, are trained to the point that if you wake them up with a sudden loud noise at 3am they will instantly be ready to get to work. I guess that's ultimately how it would be best to respond with dhamma...to get to the point where even in a dream, I think in a dhamma-oriented way. So perhaps in my case it's going to be a priority to make it that well-rooted, rather than a long-term goal.

RE: What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...
Answer
3/18/13 9:23 AM as a reply to Lanakila Pukana La Iesu.
Lanakila Pukana La Iesu:
Have you considered the bit that panic attacks may be trying to teach or tell you something? Have you tried being mindful during the panic attacks? Are the symptoms purely physical? Maybe if you describe what happens and your state of mind/understanding during them, it would help us gauge where you're at.


In the case of the panic attacks, what happens is I wake up suddenly out of what seems to have been perfectly good, sound sleep, with my heart racing and my muscles feeling tense. It happens quickly enough that I can't tell whether the emotional panic was there before the physical symptoms, or whether the feeling of panic is a response to being jolted awake by heart palpitations and tension. I don't know of any lifestyle-related physical cause for this, since I was practically free of panic attacks for many years and nothing has changed in the last several days...except that I've been happy for a change.

With regard to the nightmares, I think it's quite likely that they're a manifestation of my mind trying to deal with situations I'm not doing anything about. Unfortunately I'm not doing anything about those situations because there is nothing productive and safe I can do about them. If I could go lucid I could probably use the dhamma in a dream the same way I do in waking life, but I seldom go lucid.

I guess another way to look at this is that I'm being presented with dhamma challenges when I'm at my most vulnerable. I don't know about anybody else but when I'm dead-to-the-world asleep, or suddenly awakened from it, I'm not likely to instantly think "this too shall change." But there are those lifestyles where it's expected, and really necessary, to be able to respond to a stressor in a functional, conditioned way, no matter what time of day or night the need arises. Firefighters and military personnel, for example, are trained to the point that if you wake them up with a sudden loud noise at 3am they will instantly be ready to get to work. I guess that's ultimately how it would be best to respond with dhamma...to get to the point where even in a dream, I think in a dhamma-oriented way. So perhaps in my case it's going to be a priority to make it that well-rooted, rather than a long-term goal.


Well, more I mean... what is your state of mind when you wake up feeling super tense and anxious? Obviously you are on high alert and ready for action, but that is more of a physiological reaction. I don't think it's possible (or necessarily realistic) to be mindful all the time, especially when you are sleeping (though lucid dreams are certainly a possibility). But when you start becoming more aware again and are in the process of waking up, that's when you can use the mindfulness training.

I guess what I'm saying is that you might not be able to stop the physical symptoms from occurring even with lots of mindfulness training. But you can probably do something about your reactions to it once you are awake. The events may be disconcerting and a disruption of your sleep, but try to be patient with yourself. This may be the only way you know how to deal with the past situation.

And, of course, finding some way to "accept" the trauma is also important. I'm not sure how to go about that, but perhaps psychotherapy might help. Is there someone that you trust that you can talk things over with? Or a trained professional? Sometimes that helps. Either way, you've probably got to find a way to come to terms with the past. Just remember that some things in life are scary and it's very human to be fearful at times. Be compassionate with yourself.

RE: What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...
Answer
3/18/13 10:41 AM as a reply to Lanakila Pukana La Iesu.
When I was in Equanimity before first path, I had terrible nightmares about being buried alive. My conclusion was that this practice puts the ego under threat and it responds with panic. But the truth for you may be something different. It may be that practice has brought closer to the surface traumas long-buried, or that you have anxiety apart from practice that is manifesting throughout the path of insight, or something else. I have had anxiety for years, and I get it off and on even with practice, sometimes when I am emerging from a period of deep relaxation. The lizard brain seems to sense that I'm vulnerable and start getting over-active.

It would be good to have an anxiety thread here. In fact, I'm going to start one. Stay tuned.

RE: What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...
Answer
3/18/13 11:01 AM as a reply to Lanakila Pukana La Iesu.
"In the case of the panic attacks, what happens is I wake up suddenly out of what seems to have been perfectly good, sound sleep, with my heart racing and my muscles feeling tense. It happens quickly enough that I can't tell whether the emotional panic was there before the physical symptoms, or whether the feeling of panic is a response to being jolted awake by heart palpitations and tension. I don't know of any lifestyle-related physical cause for this, since I was practically free of panic attacks for many years and nothing has changed in the last several days...except that I've been happy for a change.."


Have you considered if this might be related to sleep apnea? I have had this happen before as you described above with a feeling of being unable to breathe. I thought it might be a sleep apnea type response rather than a panic attack but it is hard to say.


http://sleepapneafaq.wikispaces.com/Sleep+Apnea+and+Panic+Attacks

RE: What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...
Answer
3/18/13 11:44 AM as a reply to sawfoot _.
sawfoot _:
"In the case of the panic attacks, what happens is I wake up suddenly out of what seems to have been perfectly good, sound sleep, with my heart racing and my muscles feeling tense. It happens quickly enough that I can't tell whether the emotional panic was there before the physical symptoms, or whether the feeling of panic is a response to being jolted awake by heart palpitations and tension. I don't know of any lifestyle-related physical cause for this, since I was practically free of panic attacks for many years and nothing has changed in the last several days...except that I've been happy for a change.."


Have you considered if this might be related to sleep apnea? I have had this happen before as you described above with a feeling of being unable to breathe. I thought it might be a sleep apnea type response rather than a panic attack but it is hard to say.


http://sleepapneafaq.wikispaces.com/Sleep+Apnea+and+Panic+Attacks

This is a really good point. Sleep apnea could easily cause you to wake up in a panic!

As for why it's becoming an issue now... perhaps you are sleeping more lightly than before? Or perhaps your sleep habits have changed?

RE: What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...
Answer
3/18/13 2:27 PM as a reply to sawfoot _.
No signs of sleep apnea. I don't snore, have no headaches, and am not tired during the day.

RE: What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...
Answer
3/18/13 2:31 PM as a reply to Jane Laurel Carrington.
When I was in Equanimity before first path, I had terrible nightmares about being buried alive. My conclusion was that this practice puts the ego under threat and it responds with panic.


I've been wondering about that. A lot of folks with anxiety issues of one kind or another, when things are going very well, tend to wonder on some level when the other shoe is going to drop. That might very well be what's up - one explanation that's been proposed as to why nightmares happen is that it's a way of having the mind rehearse for responding to bad scenarios, so it's entirely possible that my brain thinks it has to work overtime at psychological "disaster-preparedness" since I'm not fussing, fretting, and fuming all day anymore.

I think an anxiety-and-dhamma discussion would be a great idea, by the way. Thank you for your initiative!

RE: What the heck??? Happy days, troubled nights...
Answer
3/27/13 3:45 AM as a reply to Lanakila Pukana La Iesu.
Well, it would appear that the nightmares have pretty much subsided and I haven't had any further panic attacks since those two initial nights. I consulted someone who knows a lot more about sleep patterns and dreaming life than I do and she suggested something relatively simple: before going to bed, sit down with yourself and tell yourself that there is no need for you to rehearse disaster/bad-thing preparedness at night; no bad thing is happening. The other shoe hasn't dropped, and until/unless it does there's no sense being concerned; if anything does happening you are ready to deal with it when it comes about. I didn't think this would work, it just seemed too simple...but it seems like it has. I have had stressful/annoying dreams but nothing anywhere near nightmare level; nothing to disturb quality of sleep/peace of mind.