What lies beneath panic attacks? - Embodied Living


So What Lies Beneath Panic Disorder/Attacks?

Rather than a ‘mental disorder’ this is a disorder of our system. A fault in the operating system, like a virus on the hard drive. It is a product of living in a chronic emergency mode of attention: the sympathetic nervous system is in permanent overdrive. Like a car that has the accelerator stuck to the floor. Sometimes this chronic engagement in the ‘fear, flight or fight’ mode is the ‘system’s’ way of keeping fearful or high-intensity memories and feelings at bay. And often the cause of panic attacks is routed in a highly stressful or traumatic event.

When the accelerator is stuck to the floor like this, we live in a state of chronic narrow focused attention. Our brain is in overdrive, with high intensity thoughts that are one tracked, tunnel vision thinking, focused on the fear. Our body is flooded with the stress hormones of cortisol, noradrenaline etc which shut down non-essential blood supply, such as that to higher regions of the brain. So we are actually less able to think ‘big picture’ and therefore less able to problem solve and put things in perspective. And this narrow focus keeps us in the high state of anxiety; we literally can’t see the wood for the trees.

“Anxiety is the state of twentieth-century man.” ~ Norman Mailer

If this is true, perhaps panic disorder is its 21st century progeny? Panic attacks are horrible: they come on suddenly, for no apparent cause, characterised by a severe fear that can peak within 10 mins. This is accompanied by symptoms such as excessive sweating, nausea, disturbing thoughts about harming oneself or others, fear of loss of control or that you are becoming insane.

For me, the Edvard Munch painting ‘The Scream’ – pictured right – epitomises this condition, which both men and women suffer and which can have a negative effect on a person’s life. Many sufferers struggle with this condition for many years, and can give up hope of ever getting better or refuse to believe their condition is treatable. In many ways this is understandable, when this disorder has you in its grip, it is a very scary place to be.

Nevertheless, this is the most treatable mental disorder. And treatment is very effective. When I am working with my clients, regardless of what condition they have, I tell them ‘it won’t last’. Of course, I know they will get better, but often people experience rapid changes in a session or two, and can get very ‘attached’ to this change. And of course, such change indicates that ‘the system’ is learning. Whilst changes do happen quickly, it is important that people know that the system has a mind of its own that needs time and practice to make lasting change. Otherwise, they will too easily become disheartened.


But the nervous system is very malleable and these chronic symptoms can be reversed. In order to release the long-held anxiety we need to educate our system into moving into a softer, more ‘open focused’ way of being. This involves sedating the sympathetic nervous system and tonifying the parasympathetic nervous system.

Embodied Living works initially on the somatic mind, using practices such as:

  • yin yoga and yoga therapy – calming, nurturing and supportive practices
    breath work – re-educating the breathing system
  • self-hypnosis and deep relaxation techniques
  • mindfulness-based practices such as Open Focus and antar mouna – to help us shift our style of attention
  • biofeedback – using heart rate variability and brain wave monitoring to coach the system into coherence

Once our body-mind and physiology have normalised, and the system is more in balance, we can then work on the cognitive mind. By working with NLP and cognitive behaviour techniques we can learn to change our thinking. And psychotherapy can also help us to understand the emotional causes of anxiety.

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