A panic attack is a sudden rush of intense fear in a person when there is no apparent or rational cause. Panic attacks frequently trigger a number of physiological symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, sweating, adrenaline and cortisol release, chills, numbness or tingling in the feet or hands, difficulty breathing, trembling, chest pain, stomach pain, or nausea. Panic Disorder is a condition which is characterized by experiencing panic attacks on a regular basis. Panic attacks can be very frightening for the individual; one can come to the conclusion that he or she is dying, having a heart attack, suffocating, or something similar.
Anxiety disorder is likewise a condition in which the individual experiences anxiety, a state of mind also characterized by fear. However, while panic attacks are sudden, brief, and unprecedented, anxiety occurs more gradually. It slowly comes over a person, often in relation to how he or she experiences something, and slowly fades away as they either learn to cope, or resolve the issue. Anxiety is experienced in the body because of neural chemicals flooding into the nervous system, especially cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. This happens when the brain tricks the body into going into the fight-flight-freeze mode. The process is often driven by our ruminations or obsessive thoughts.
Panic attacks can happen when the nervous system is so flooded with stress chemicals it becomes overwhelmed. When the person recognizes their heart is racing, they start to think they’re having a heart attack and they’re going to die, and that focus on bodily sensations only increases the anxiety making it worse and worse. In effect, people develop anxiety about their anxiety. When someone is having a panic attack, they become fearful and irrational and may fear impending doom or death.
Though the causes of panic attacks are not always known, there are known risk factors. Here are a few situations that are associated with a greater risk of developing panic attacks:
There are also a few medical conditions that seem to have a positive correlation to panic attacks. They are:
While not particularly dangerous, panic attacks are extremely unpleasant for the victim. An individual experiencing one may feel as though he or she is about to die, from a heart attack, suffocation, or other incident. Even if one occurs in a relatively safe environment, the victim cannot function while it is happening. Having loved ones around can be reassuring, and that can help, to a degree. Once the fear subsides, the victim may need a few hours to recover.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a form of therapy which can be used to treat panic disorder. EMDR is a specialized modality that requires specific training, and works by separating the memories of trauma in the patient’s past from the terrible emotions and fear caused by them. It does this by exploiting a connection between eye movement memory.
After assessing the individual’s past to identify traumatic events, the therapist will seek to identify those memories that provoke the biggest response in the patient. The therapist hopes to learn of any possible connection between the patient’s daily experiences and the painful emotions they may trigger. With some skilled talk therapy, the therapist should be able to identify which painful emotions are being triggered, and what is triggering them.
Then, in a controlled setting, the therapist will ask the patient to recall those memories and their associated thoughts, feelings and sensations. While doing this, the patient must focus their eyes on a moving target. This visual prompt can either be mechanical in nature, or something simple, like a pen in the therapist’s hand. By forcing their attention on the prompt, the eye movements replicate REM Sleep, and the brain’s natural mode of memory processing and integration. This begins to weaken the connection between the memory of that event and the horrible emotions that it generates in the body of the patient. After several such sessions, the patient learns to recall such memories without experiencing acute emotions. Eventually, he or she may not feel anything significant at all.
In many cases, the arrival of panic disorder in the life of an individual is rooted in some form of childhood trauma. Science has shown us that trauma alters brain chemistry and behavior, and can easily give rise to PTSD. Stress, as listed above, is another risk factor for panic disorder, as are child abuse and trauma.
From that standpoint, the process of treating panic disorder using EMDR is relatively straightforward. If the therapist can access the painful memories that are being triggered by the individual’s environment, then he can eliminate the power of those memories, as well as the trauma and stress that they have caused. In turn, the individual’s brain should rediscover the ability to form new connections and pathways, enabling it to recover, heal, and grow anew.
Panic is somewhat different from other trauma-based responses; it is not necessarily obvious that there is a connection between an environmental trigger and an acute panic response. The lack of an obvious trigger is a good thing; it reminds the therapist that the environment isn’t the cause of the problem.
Put differently, if a person experiences a panic attack (or multiple attacks) while doing mundane activities that they normally handle easily (or even with some difficulty), that’s a strong indication that the trigger isn’t the issue.
The therapist follows the prescribed step-by-step process for identifying the underlying trauma, and then gradually and safely explores it with the patient. Eventually, the acute response to those memories fades away. As it does, the tendency for the body to experience bouts of panic fades away also.
Jim Brillon serves the people of Orange County as a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. He has completed the necessary training for EMDR therapy, and uses it regularly when treating his clients for trauma-based conditions. If you or someone you know is suffering from panic disorder, give our office a call. Panic attacks are very disruptive, and can lead to a variety of unintended consequences. You don’t have to suffer. Jim has helped people overcome this terrifying condition, and he can help you too.