"I Beat My Panic Attacks with Karate"
Starting Karate Classes
Each weekly class began with a vigorous warm-up of stretches, push-ups, and sit-ups. I learned to punch, kick, block, escape from holds, handle weapons, throw an attacker, and even "kiai" -- let out a yell meant to focus energy when executing a technique. Although I felt nervous at first, I eventually looked forward to working out my daily anxiety and frustrations. Wham! That's the editor who killed my story. Bam! That's the friend who flaked out on our lunch date.
I also learned numerous kata, which are predetermined routines of strikes and blocks. At the studio where I practiced, students are expected to perform kata whenever called upon by the sensei (master or teacher). Performing these intricate movements in front of my fellow students was one thing, but to be promoted to each successive belt level, I had to do kata in front of the rest of the school, plus a bunch of family members. Speaking in public seemed like kid's play compared with these mandatory performances. Still, after a while, the panic attacks decreased noticeably.The Exercise Cure
Studies show that vigorous exercise increases the levels of the anxiety-busting chemical serotonin in the brain. "There is evidence that panic disorder, like most anxiety disorders, is exacerbated by serotonin imbalances, which exercise can help control," says Larina Kase, PsyD, a psychologist and anxiety specialist in private practice in Philadelphia. Exercise also provides an immediate anti-anxiety effect by boosting levels of dopamine and endorphins, says Keith Johnsgard, PhD, author of Conquering Depression and Anxiety Through Exercise (Prometheus Books, 2004). "These chemicals trigger pleasurable feelings and can create a sense of post-workout euphoria that can last up to six hours," he says.
Martial arts in particular can be an especially beneficial form of exercise for people like me. These disciplines require you to fine-tune your self-control, a critical step in overcoming panic disorder. Karate also includes a brief meditative session at the beginning and end of every class, done while sitting (seiza) and walking (kinhin). Meditation may activate parts of the brain that host positive emotions and can trigger a reaction known as the relaxation response. MRI research shows that when you're in this mode, the area of the brain that activates stress-related symptoms (such as those that occur during a panic attack) may be virtually shut down. According to some experts, regular meditation imparts an attitude of calm that can stave off these symptoms.
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