Panic attacks are disabling and can have a significant effect on limiting people’s lives. In a recent post on panic disorder, I looked at the underlying sympathetic nervous system response and how yoga and mindfulness practices can help. From a psychotherapeutic perspective, I find that when people have some education about the process of panic attacking and some awareness of the process, they can start to let go of some of the fear. The very nature of panic attacks is similar to phobias, but the fear is of fear itself: the fear of having a panic attack becomes the phobic response. So by educating people as to the nature of the process, fear starts to loosen.
The Process of Panic Attacks
Panic attacks are the body’s learnt or conditioned response to a stimulus and is classical conditioning. However, when the body does something really well, it leaves it all to the unconscious mind, which by its very nature we can’t change without a little help. The original stimulus is often an event, perhaps an illness, where we lose control and experience some particular strong, negative emotions for the first time (fear, terror, panic, etc). We often can’t even remember the original ‘event’ but nevertheless, the body remembers it! These powerful emotions get ‘remembered’ by the body, the memory of that event in terms of the ‘felt sense’ of it, get stored in the body as a response.
Then, at a later date, some other (non related) event (stimulus) then gets associated with the response of panic (that response which has been remembered by the body). Thereby a ‘limiting decision’ is made by the unconscious mind (body-mind) to make the connection between the new stimulus and the panic response. The negative emotions of the panic attack build up and work together in a vicious cycle of anger, fear and blame. As well as the fear of having a panic attack (because we cannot control it), there can be anger that we feel at our self for doing it, sadness that we can’t control ourselves or will lose face or friends, guilt that we can’t solve the problem ourselves.
Thoughts Make the Problem Worse
When the limiting decision made by the unconscious mind to make the connection between the new stimulus and the conditioned response, the beliefs and thoughts that the person has about the situation make the negative feeling experience much worse – ‘it’s not normal’, ‘it’s not right’, ‘i’m abnormal’, ‘I’m rubbish’ , ‘If anyone finds out I’ll lose everyone’, ‘I’m going to throw up/lose control in front of everyone’, ‘I’m going to die!’
How to Treat Panic Attacks
The process of treating panic attacks, involves giving the unconscious mind more choice and flexibility to help it ‘undo’ the stimulus-response that has been ‘learnt’. In my work using neuro-linguistic psychotherapy, I follow a process that broadly can be summarised as:
- Identify the triggering thought and emotions and/or limiting belief
- Identify the first panic attack – the time when the stimulus-response and limiting decision was made
- Use search anchor (with safety anchor and kept dissociated) or similar to find first event – where the root fear was experienced
- Clear out the negative emotions that act as a ‘glue’ binding the response in place – anger, sadness, fear, guilt
- Then clear out the limiting belief or treat as a phobia
Contact me at Embodied Living for help on resolving your panic attacks.