Fight or Flight Responses During Meditation

On his blog The Buddha Diaries peteratlarge wrote a post called The Worst Sit Ever about a difficulty he experienced during mediation. You can read the full description of his predicament there but briefly it was something akin to a panic attack. He felt his heart racing, difficulty breathing and a strong urge to escape from the situation.

I left a comment there that I want to reproduce here and amplify a bit.

I have had this happen a few times also.

(I also had panic attacks when much younger but not for over 10 years now)

It started as an indefinable restlessness. And a sense that movement was necessary. This sensation became increasingly urgent. But even when I moved it didn’t help. In fact the more I moved when this happened the worse it got.
What it came down to for me was my physical state attempting to emulate my mental state. The body and mind are not two different things.  To relieve some of the anxiety within, to escape from it seemed very important even if I couldn’t have said at that moment what that anxiety was about.

Within a few days something would surface that was apparently, subconsciously, “a big deal” and once that manifested then the whole thing would slow down and stop.

Metaphorically I think of it like an underground guyser. And now when I notice such things I set myself into a sort of preparation mode and drop any barriers that are preventing this “big deal” from emerging.

Whatever comes then is not inhibited by my fear of it. It’s much more gentle that way now. And some of it had to do with fear of what I didn’t know about myself. It was a construction of imaginary fear pushing down on fear in memory and something, environmentally, was agitating that memory fear.

When this situation continues for some time it gets into a basic fight or flight response. The animal part of the brain. There is some perceived threat from which one wants to escape. Even in peaceful surroundings this sense of threat can appear.

When we do mediation, after some years of clearing away superficial clutter, some of the deeper things make themselves known.  Because we have not been aware of them they seem very ominous and as if they are coming out of “nowhere”.  But they are coming out of imagination and memory mixed with whatever current life situation one is experiencing. Even so they can be scary and we can feel fearful if we don’t understand their origins.  And even understanding that, such events can be unpleasant.

This is where a well-trained, experienced and skillful teacher can give some guidance. And if there are issues emerging that are extremely troubling some counseling to help come to terms with them on a psychological level beyond the spiritual level can be helpful.

This kind of thing happens frequently to people with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and many do not have the benefit of meditaiton.  As I said in a comment on this blog a while back I was in a relationship  for 14 years (9 of those married) with someone with serious PTSD so have some understanding of this kind of issue from that perspective.

But one doesn’t necessarily have PTSD just because a meditation “event” occurs. It just means your practice is moving to the next level. And sometimes outside events can cause these shifts as well.
For example, if I have long bouts of insomnia, such as from jet lag, I notice a certain amount of agitation starting up and  it is harder to set up the conditions to receive and process fearful things either from within or without.

One has to then be compassionate with one’s self and remove a lot of overstimulating things from the environment. And one may have to ask others just to back off a little as well. Structured exercise (like Tai Chi or Yoga) can help a little too.

That’s how I deal with it and such things have become rare.

Everyone’s got to find their own way to deal with this kind of thing but it is a common experience so it doesn’t mean you’re going crazy or something. As I said though if it becomes so troublesome that it affects your everyday activity or becomes debilitating take some counselling to transition through it.

8 comments on “Fight or Flight Responses During Meditation

  1. nella lou thank you so much for posting this. I have been practicing for 8 years now without a sangha. I’ve been on a few retreats, both solitary and not. What you describe is something I have experienced to differing degrees throughout my practice – more so the past few years. On two non-solitary retreats I have attended I have had this experience intensely. On one occasion it happened in combination with incredibly vivid dharmic images. I have no idea what any of this signifies, if anything. What you have written has helped me in getting a bit closer to understanding this phenomena! Thank you!


    • Thanks for posting a fuller response to my original posting on The Buddha Diaries. I hope you got my note to say that I was happy to have found your blog, and that I’ve included a link to you on my ow blogroll. Your entries make good reading, filled with insight.

  2. Yes I did get your note and have replied. Glad you are finding some things I put here useful, if not useful then at least entertaining. Either is OK with me. It is the intention in any case.

  3. It’s not a mystery what it means when your heart starts racing during meditation. Infact you are getting close to doing what they call Astral Projection. If you are serious about meditation I am sure you have probably heard about this before. The symptoms of a meditation session turning into conscious Astral Projection are racing heart, vibrations, buzzing, ringing, or cracking noises, and above all some people get an overwhelming sense of unexplainable fear.
    The first time this happened to me the strength of the vibrations scared me alone. Earlier today I was about 3 hours into my meditation and suddenly I snapped out of random thoughts with intense tingling all over my body and my heart was pounding so hard I could feel it pumping thru my chest. Fear not, there is nothing to be scared of at all. Infact this is the entry to some of the best experiences a human-being can have.
    To get past that stage you need to deal with any fear or disbelief you may have and in time you will get to Astral Project. I wish everyone luck who has experienced this and I know all of this sounds out there. But I know for a fact Astral Projection is real and meditation is the doorway into doing it consciously.

  4. Can I simply just say what a comfort to uncover somebody that genuinely understands what they’re talking about on the net. You actually understand how to bring a problem to light and make it important. More and more people ought to look at this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised that you aren’t more popular since you certainly have the gift.

  5. [This got caught in moderation. I don’t normally bother with this kind of ignorant comment but I want to use it as an example for another post. Feel free to ignore what’s said here since it’s pretty obvious the author knows little to nothing about Buddhism or anything beyond what they are reciting. I used to have relatives that talked like this all the time. So fortunate to have escaped that narrow mindedness. ~NellaLou]

    I know u people don’t wanna hear anything from a Christian view but anyways here goes,you are really playing on dangerous ground dabbling in this meditation stuff.we are in a spiritual battle according to the bible,meditation opens u up to demonic spirits,that trick u.the bible says satan is able to transform himself into an angel of light,don’t be deceived these entities are what the bible calls fallen angels disguising themselves as “spirit guides” & your “dead relatives” the bible says it is appointed unto men to die once but after this judgement” we dont come back to “haunt” anyone.reincarnation is a lie,and leads people to think they have many chances to “get it right”after this life there is NO other chances, Please do a little research on the dangers of meditating & yoga.we are not suppose to empty our mind of all thoughts,u are opening a door to the spirit realm while doing this,& giving them access to enter you.please be careful & give your life to Christ,he has authority over all these wicked beings who deceive & only want to pull u deeper into the occult,they r after your soul.

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