Panic attacks can be one of the most powerful and disruptive of the anxiety disorders, impacting our lives in profound ways. Furthermore, no one is immune. Everyone from young children to the elderly can experience a panic attack. Your doctor and your garbage collector may share this unfortunate attribute. Men and women both experience panic, although it is somewhat more common in women. While you may feel very alone and isolated in your experience, panic attacks are a too common occurrence in our culture. I see it every day in my Orange County psychotherapy office.
I’m a Marriage and Family Therapist and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. I specialize in the holistic (body/mind oriented) reduction of anxiety and trauma healing. A high percentage of the people I work with arrive in my office with a history or current experience of panic attack symptoms. Panic attacks can be debilitating. One of the biggest issues with panic attacks is the fear of the next panic attack. A quick review of the symptoms will demonstrate why.
What Are The Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
- Extreme fear of dying, losing your mind (“going crazy), or losing control
- Overwhelming terror and a sense of helplessness
- Racing thoughts, frantic thoughts
- Racing heart beat or heart palpitations
- Tight chest and chest pains
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing—can’t catch your breath, a feeling of smothering
- Tight throat or choking sensation
- Profuse sweating
- Uncontrolled shaking and trembling
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Tight stomach, stomach pains, intense butterflies
- Feeling like you’re going to pass out, dizzy, lightheaded, faint
- Temperature dysregulation—hot and/or cold flashes
- Derealization —dreamlike sensations, perceptual distortions, feeling unreal or apart from the world and your surroundings
- Muscle weakness
Fortunately, a panic attack is time-limited in duration. Most panic attacks are going to be at their worst for only about 10 to 15 minutes. Few will last more than thirty minutes, although a panic attack can last as long as an hour. Even a brief panic attack will feel much longer when you're in the midst of it. By it's very nature, a panic attack is an overwhelming, terrifying, and intense experience. Your sense of time may likely be distorted while you are gripped by panic, so it can feel endless in the moment.
Ruling out other medical causes or co-occurring conditions is an important first step. By the time Anxious Folk have come into my office, chances are they've already ruled out other possible medical explanations for their panic attack experiences. Anxious Folk are frequent flyers at the ER, with studies saying as many as 80% of ER visits can attributed to anxiety and panic symptoms, alone. If you haven't been checked out by your physician and you're experiencing panic attack symptoms, you should do so now. Your doctor will want to rule out heart-related issues, naturally, and may also want to check for thyroid irregularities, food allergies and sensitivities. I've even heard that dust and mold allergies can trigger panic attacks for some individuals, as well.
Sounds Awful, Right? What Causes Panic Attacks?
HERE'S A TIP: In the midst of a panic attack it's helpful to remind yourself, "I know what this is. This is anxiety and panic. It can't hurt me. The intensity will peak in a few minutes and be over soon." It's hugely helpful to recognize the experience for what it is--your body doing what bodies do when they've had enough of the right kind of stressors--and riding it out, rather than "feeding" the experience with your fear. When you know what's what, there's no longer a reason to fear you're dying. It's just nasty ol' panic. You can do it.
But what causes panic attacks? Anxious Folk are anxious and really Anxious Folks have panic attacks. Your overwhelming anxiety is a learned coping response, likely developed in childhood. It was a great way of managing life back then, staying safe, dealing with criticism, coping with chaos, losses, parental addictions or mental health issues, or an out of control family system. Maybe you were just raised by Anxious Folks. In a way, anxious thought habits are contagious in families. So, it was a great strategy then. It's not such a good strategy now. The good news is, you can unlearn anxiety. I see it happen every day.
When it comes to why do some anxious people have panic attacks and others don't, the jury is still out. In my experience, whenever the scientific or medical communities don’t have a definitive answer for what causes this or that malady or experience, eventually they will point a finger at genetics. "It's genetics." Panic attack is no different. I imagine the time will come when they find a genetic marker for panic attack and anxiety. Or maybe not. Who knows? The fact of the matter is, whether it’s genetics or not, it still generally takes a certain set of conditions to switch on those genes and get them moving, whether we’re talking about cancer or we’re taking about anxiety.
So, perhaps it is genetics, but you know what? I can’t do a a damned thing about genetics. What I can do is coach you through your anxious experience, show you how to reduce your anxiety overall through the use of important body/mind tools and skills, and support your self-healing nervous system with body-oriented modalities. When we do this work and your are diligent in your home practice, your symptoms of anxiety and panic should start to subside nicely. I’ll tell you right now, it’s going to take more than good old-fashioned Talk Therapy to turn the tide, as much as I love and value talk therapy.
It's true, I’m trained as a talk therapist. And a depth-oriented one at that, which means I’m nearly as interested in what is going on unconsciously for you as consciously. I’m also intensely interested in family systems, specifically yours, and the way in which it formed and impacted you over the course of your lifetime. The thing that really defines me most as a clinician, however, is the powerful three-year training I did in Somatic Experiencing. Somatic is a big word for “body.” Somatic Experiencing is a gentle, non–retraumatizing trauma healing modality that works directly with incomplete fight, flight, and freeze response housed within your body and nervous system.
Wait!? What? Why Are We Talking About Somatic Experiencing All of a Sudden? I thought This Was All About Panic Attack.
Panic attacks are a very physical experience. An all-encompassing physical and emotional experience. The body is charging along in full-out high activation survival mode (for no apparent reason) and the mind is racing to catch up, thinking, “Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness, I must be DYING!"
This is why we're talking about Somatic Experiencing. Panic attack is physical! It's physical and Somatic Experiencing works directly with the body and the nervous system to facilitate healing on the emotional and physical level. The anxious mind and the highly activated body and nervous system are entirely interconnected.
To be more specific, Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a biologically based trauma modality developed by Dr. Peter A. Levine over the course of over 45 years of interdisciplinary studies drawing on the fields of psychology, biology, stress physiology, ethology, neuroscience, medical biophysics, and indigenous healing practices. Somatic Experiencing emerges from the best elements of research science, therapeutic application, and traditional healing techniques. Okay, that's a mouthful.
In other words, there's a way to help you in your experience of anxiety and panic that goes beyond talk therapy, valuable as that is, and right to the formation of anxious experience in your body. It's Somatic Experiencing.
Okay, So Somatic Experiencing (SE) Supports The Nervous System, But What Does That Have To Do With Reducing Panic Attacks?
Oh My Goodness! Get To The Point Already! How Does Somatic Experiencing Actually Help Resolve Panic Attacks?
Anxious Folk are not keen on feeling uncomfortable sensations. Uncomfortable or unfamiliar sensations make us even more anxious. Not a handy cycle to get caught in. Our anxious thoughts create anxious uncomfortable sensations. Our uncomfortable sensations create more anxious thoughts (i.e. "Oh my Gawd! What is that? Am I having a heart attack!?").
How do we disrupt this anxious cycle and bring an end to the occurrence (or at least the frequency) of panic attacks? When we can create more resiliency in the system, both emotionally and physically, and more tolerance for discomfort, we essentially disarm the panic attack. If the sensations in my body are no longer overwhelming me, I'm much less likely to tip into full-blown panic when discomforting sensations arise.
By using Somatic Experiencing interventions to track the sensations in the body, becoming more familiar and comfortable with the sensations offered up by the body, we become desensitized to them. Our sensations are no longer frightening to us. Our uncomfortable sensations lose their power over us.
Desensitization Is Not Enough. Fortunately Somatic Experiencing Is More Than A Desensitization Technique.
Ultimately the work I do with clients seeks to disrupt the anxious pattern in a variety of ways. This includes developing a complete understanding of the formation of your anxious experience. Yours. So, we'll explore your history and your family of origin. You'll also learn a variety of deep self-soothing techniques. Anxious Folk almost always have to learn to identify and maintain better boundaries. It's part of what we need to feel better and safer in all our relationships. You'll need to become better at taking care of yourself in lots of different ways. You'll learn how to listen to your thoughts differently. Notice what you are thinking and how that is impacting your experience of yourself and contributing to your anxious sensations. First and foremost, you'll learn not believe everything you think! All throughout this process, Somatic Experiencing will be incorporated to address the nervous system, heal traumas of all kinds, train you in learning how to attend to and listen to your body, and deliver that gold of becoming comfortable with whatever sensations your body hands you.
It's a very complete work and it takes all of it to manage the job. In my body oriented practice healing panic attack is a marriage of insight oriented talk therapy, mindfulness, self-awareness, physical, emotional, and energetic self-care, a pile of new self-soothing tools, desensitization, yes, and fully integrated work with Somatic Experiencing. The good work you do around resolving your anxiety and panic will impact every area of your life and relationships in a positive way. When you're ready to move out of panic and into peace, give me a call. I'll be here for you. You don't have to do this alone any more.