“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Panic is the most extreme form of anxiety. A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear that occurs in the absence of any physical danger. Your heart pounds and you can’t breathe. You may feel like you’re having a heart attack or that you’re dying or going crazy. While a panic attack is not life threatening, it often feels like it is.
Although a single panic attack may only last a few minutes, the effects may take an emotional toll. The memory of the intense fear and terror that you felt during the attack can negatively impact your self-confidence and cause serious disruption to your everyday life. Many people become preoccupied with the fear of another attack, causing them to avoid any circumstance in which a panic attack might be triggered. Eventually more and more situations are avoided, as life becomes organized around avoiding further panic attacks.
For some people, this results in a condition called agoraphobia, which develops from fear of having a panic attack in a situation where escape would be difficult or embarrassing, or where help might not be available. With agoraphobia, the individual can only feel safe at home and so avoids going out at all. For individuals suffering from agoraphobia, I suggest starting with therapy sessions via Skype or Facetime, with the eventual goal of office visits.
Although the exact medical cause of panic attacks is unknown, the tendency to have panic attacks runs in families. As multiple life stresses pile up and the individual’s normal ability to cope with anxiety is overwhelmed, panic attacks become more likely. There seems to be a connection with major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married or having a baby. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also trigger a panic attack.
If this sounds like you, it may be time to consider getting help. Psychotherapy has been proven effective in overcoming panic disorder. My approach is customized for the individual, drawing on considerable practical experience along with training in Cognitive behavioral and solution-focused approaches, as well as a Jungian depth psychology.
I recommend that anyone who is suffering from panic attacks consult a physician to rule out any physical illness, especially heart disease, that can have similar symptoms. Simply knowing that you are free of heart problems and that the panic attack is not life threatening, may help you to feel less frightened.
You may also want to inquire about medications. There are a number of medications that work well in treating panic attacks and you can discuss these during your visit to the doctor. For some people, knowing that they have a medication to take to interrupt a panic attack, helps them to feel more relaxed and less afraid and so lessens the probability of either using the medication or having another attack.
In addition to addressing the medical aspects with the steps above, you might also consider psychotherapy to address the psychological and emotional aspects of panic.
There is often a great feeling of relief in being able to talk about such frightening and bizarre experiences with someone who understands and doesn’t judge. Often friends and family members become deeply worried when a loved one has a panic attack. Fear is contagious, but this effect can end up increasing the anxiety of both the patient and loved ones in a vicious circle. In your therapy session, you can be free to say whatever you like about your experience, without embarrassment or the need to to protect the therapist from your fear.
We might begin with learning and practicing some practical coping skills to interrupt an emerging feeling of panic before it develops into a full attack. These might include mindfulness, creative visualization or other relaxation methods. Practicing these skills can lead to a new feeling of confidence as you learn that you can stop an attack.
We can also explore any patterns of negative or self-defeating thinking through Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) which has proven helpful with panic disorder. CBT can help you to better understand and change any thinking patterns and behaviors that are sustaining or triggering the panic attacks.
Because panic attacks are often a response to overwhelming external situations or life transitions, we will work to identify and resolve any situations that are elevating your anxiety.
From a Jungian perspective, panic symptoms can be an indication that something is out of balance in your life and that change is needed. Rather than only silencing the messenger with medication, we can also consider the underlying message of the panic attack. Viewed in this way, symptoms can become a guide to better understand attitudes and choices that are no longer working. By approaching the symptoms in this way, we regard the panic attacks as pointing toward unknown or neglected parts of ourselves which need attention. As we decode these messages, they tend to reveal new perspectives on our difficulties, potentially leading to a deeper connection to ourselves and renewed energy for life.
For immediate help with panic attacks, I recommend this CD, using creative visualization.