Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Mindful life: When your brain tells you to jump...

What I learnt from having a panic attack at 4,000 feet
September 6, 2023

I was alone, on a chairlift, almost 4,000ft above sea level, when the thought came. 


As my chair inched slowly up the mountain, my brain helpfully informed me that I was “going to jump to my death, so I might as well get on with it”. As I surveyed the magnificent Canadian peaks, I was gripped by a sense of doom. I was about to lose control of my body, way up high. This was very bad—very bad indeed. 

Over the past few months, I have become cocky about my mental state. I have peppered my columns with thinly veiled brags about mindfulness and box-breathing—painting myself as a master of Zen. I have been smug with my friends, dispensing unsolicited advice about how to live in the moment. Well, they will all be relieved to read that, ironically, my elevated panic attack has brought me right back down to Earth. 

Last year, my two best friends and long-time housemates Lucy and Amy rudely chose to move to the opposite side of the world. We decided to meet in Canada this summer—Lucy and I visited British Columbia, before flying east to join Amy in Quebec. 

On the sunny day of the chairlift incident, I was a free agent, as Lucy was visiting a relative. As I boarded the chairlift to the mountain’s apex, I was in the kind of thoroughly good mood you only get when you have another week of holiday stretching out in front of you. My only care in the world was whether I would make it back down in time for the “world-famous” lumberjack show later on.

Intrusive thoughts are the bread and butter of obsessive-compulsive disorder

I was feeling cheerful, until about three minutes into the 15-minute ride, when I began to experience what has been dubbed the “call of the void” or the “High Place Phenomenon”—the urge to jump when facing a steep drop. It is a common experience that some scientists believe stems from the misinterpretation of the body’s survival signal. They think that people may incorrectly attribute the increased anxiety that comes with the body’s “you’re getting too close to the edge” message as evidence of a death wish.

At first, I felt calm about it—intrusive thoughts are the bread and butter of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which I have. Dealing with the High Place Phenomenon felt like being asked, as a professional athlete, to do a parkrun: I once had an intrusive OCD thought that I had a plant growing out of my back, so by comparison this was small fry. 

But for some reason, on that particular day the alchemy of being jetlagged, in an unfamiliar environment and on holiday (it is often when I finally allow myself to relax that my body responds to the stresses of daily life) led this common fear to balloon into a full-blown panic attack. 

I’ve had panic attacks before, but have never, if you’ll pardon the pun, had one with such high stakes. I genuinely felt like my life was in danger, that at any moment I would give into the thoughts and launch myself off into the abyss. I gripped tighter and tighter onto the metal bar in front of me, trying to protect myself from myself. There was still at least 10 minutes of the journey to go—how would I survive it? 

It had been so long since I had fallen prey to a panic attack that I had to rack my brain to find the techniques to handle it. In the meantime, I started doing all the wrong things. By following my instincts and treating the thought as though it was real and dangerous, I was continuing the cycle of anxiety, and communicating to myself that there was a real risk that I would lose control. 

Eventually, the calm voice of a mental health professional I had seen many years ago drifted back to me: “Your body’s safety system can never harm you.” Like floating when you’re drowning, I needed to override my instincts and send the message to my brain, through my behaviour, that I wasn’t truly in danger.  

It took everything in me, in that moment, to follow his advice. It took all my strength to relax my grip on the bar, to lie back in the chair. By doing so, I was showing my brain that it didn’t need to panic about the thought that I would throw myself off the chairlift. Because a thought really is just a thought.