Melbourne based Pauline McKinnon has been a leader in the field of therapeutic meditation for over 30 years helping many people to overcome anxiety. As an author on the topic and psychotherapist, Pauline specialises in the Ainslie Meares' natural style of meditation. According to Pauline, also the founder of the Stillness Meditation centre in Melbourne, Victoria, anxiety attacks can come on suddenly with little warning and when they do it is important to know the best way to respond – whether it is for yourself or someone you know or who is near you.
"Many people think stress and anxiety are the same thing. They are very different. Stress occurs in response to a situation and normally if you remove or resolve the situation, the stress diminishes. Anxiety can certainly accompany the stress response, but anxiety on the other hand can happen for no known reason," Pauline said today.
"Anxiety can be debilitating. I suffered from anxiety for many years before discovering effective relief and often it's symptoms would come on without any warning.
"Among a range of unpleasant feelings, I could sometimes suffer from an odd feeling of unreality, where I felt like I was there, but weirdly not. And then, my head would start pounding, my chest would tighten, I'd feel a shortness of breath and, typically, an overwhelming sense of fear.
"I had my first episode of anxiety many years ago when I was driving in traffic with my young kids in the car. At the time, within the terror, I thought I was going to die. Thankfully, I managed to pull into some shops and go into a store where people helped me; but that was years ago and anxiety and panic attacks were not really something people knew about back then. Thankfully today, there is much greater awareness, but more needs to be done to improve on that."
"There are some other comforting things you can do; for example, some people carry a really small bag of lavender in their handbag or pocket. Lavender is a great relaxant," Pauline added.
"The key is to understand and acknowledge an anxiety attack and use these techniques to help you cope until it passes, which it does. The key to anxiety management is always relaxation. This is best achieved through dedication to learning and practising reliable relaxation techniques or meditation. It may take time, but eventually, anxiety can be managed so that it doesn't affect your life. Anxiety is part of being human. Sensitive, creative people are more likely to experience higher levels of anxiety than others."
The Stillness Meditation Therapy Centre in Melbourne specialises in Stillness Meditation, a unique, western style meditation originated by renowned Australian psychiatrist Dr Ainslie Meares. In this, Meares designed a system of mental rest which assists people to experience mental relaxation and achieve relief from anxiety attacks or recurring symptoms.
Question: What is an anxiety attack?
Pauline McKinnon: An anxiety attack (or panic attack) is an alarming escalation of nervous tension that produces a range of unpleasant symptoms. This is the flight or fight response where a charge of cortisol and/or adrenaline is produced. This response is the body's way of coping with what it perceives as a threatening situation.
Question: How do anxiety attacks differ for individuals?
Pauline McKinnon: Anxiety attacks differ for individuals in the same way as most situations differ for individuals. Anxiety is related to life issues and of course, as these differ for individuals, so will the anxiety reaction.
Question: Can you share your experiences with anxiety?
Pauline McKinnon: My personal anxiety experience is related within my book In Stillness Conquer Fear. In short, the outcome of my first anxiety (panic) attack resulted in chronic and acute anxiety symptoms leading to a reaction of agoraphobia (the fear of leaving the safety of home). This unpleasant outcome was an 8 year journey searching for a solution until I discovered natural relief within the unique medically based Stillness Meditation.
Question: What can we do if someone, near us, is having an anxiety attack?
Pauline McKinnon: The most important action in this circumstance is to assist the individual to relax. Comfort and reassurance can be helpful and if appropriate, have them sit comfortably or lie down. However, as anxiety attacks are frequently mistaken for something more sinister, if in doubt, call for medical assistance.
Question: What practices have you implemented to prevent anxiety?
Pauline McKinnon: I have worked with anxious people professionally since my own recovery in earlier life from the rigours of anxiety. In this work my experience is vast and I have witnessed remarkable changes in the lives of a range of clients over some 35 years' professional practice. I think the fact that I am known to have personally experienced the extreme low that anxiety can produce and I have successfully turned that around to live and full and successful life adds to the confidence people have in my therapeutic approach to healing. I can highly recommend the way I followed and the way I teach others today.
Question: Can you share your top tips to help people who are having an anxiety attack?
Pauline McKinnon: Learn to recognise an anxiety attack
This is important because understanding of an anxiety attack will help you to respond in the best way possible. Reassure yourself that it is only temporary, it will pass and you will be OK. Anxiety attacks can mimic other forms of illness. So if you are with someone who you think may be having an anxiety attack, help to make them comfortable, ask them if they have previously experienced this or been diagnosed with anxiety. This information means you are better able to help them.
It is critical to take control of your breathing when you are having an anxiety attack. Breathe in and out with deep breaths. Count to four while breathing in, and then to four when breathing out. Slow deep breathing safeguards against hyperventilation. If you are with someone having an anxiety attack, help them to control their breathing similarly.
Close your eyes
If you are in an environment with a lot happening, this can feed your anxiety. Closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing helps to reduce the level of anxiety you are feeling.
Physically feel things
Physically feeling things helps to ground you and bring you back to reality helping to reassure you that all is OK. Wiggles your toes, tap the floor with your foot, put your hand into your handbag and feel around for familiar objects, feel the texture of your jeans or jacket on your skin. These sensations are familiar and bring comfort. If you are with someone experiencing anxiety, help them to feel several items or objects.
Find an item of focus
Look around and find an item of focus. Look at the item intently and describe its colour, size, and any other features that are of interest. This allows your mind to focus on something, rather than feeling anxious. If you are with someone having an episode of anxiety, point out an object and describe it together.
Muscle relaxation and stretching
Muscle relaxation and stretching techniques are an excellent way to calm the body. These can be done while standing or sitting. Simply stretch and clench/or squeeze different parts of your body – hold and release. If you are with someone having an anxiety attack, do the exercises together.
If you have had an episode of anxiety before, it is useful to develop a reassuring mantra – a calming phrase, a simple prayer or a line from a song that you can repeat to yourself and help you get through when you experience high anxiety. If you are with someone, your calm reassurance is everything, i.e., it will be OK and it will pass quickly and there is nothing to be concerned about.
Interview by Brooke Hunter