Panic disorders are sensed as physical symptoms. Often the root cause of these symptoms are not initially known to the person experiencing these attacks . This “not knowing” makes the physical reactions seem unpredictable, spontaneous and frightening. The sufferer is left feeling vulnerable to his/her condition when a panic attack seemingly arises out of nowhere.
In the field of neuroscience, a part of the brain is acknowledged as having something to do with panic (Solms & Turnbull 2002, Solms 2015). This part of the brain is also connected to the feelings of loss and depression. It is very common to observe clients who experience depressive episodes, also feel panic. As the course of therapy progresses, feelings of loss emerge .
Changes in life situation can trigger panic attacks. Leaving home, moving to a new country or entering a new marital status, etc. become moments of new learning where trusted supports of the past are no longer available. Unfamiliar ground sets the cycle of feelings of loss of security. Panic attacks seem begin at times when the individual begins to develop a sense of autonomy in life.
Connection between panic attack and loneliness
Francesetti’s (2013) mention of the link between panic attack and loneliness is noteworthy. He quotes a patient named Marco as saying “panic attack is basically an attack on acute loneliness.”
Reflecting on personal encounters with individuals who struggle with panic attacks…
The client narratives often speak of situations of leaving, being left behind, suffering emotions alone, having had to escape mentally from somewhere. Frequently encountered are narratives of terror feelings experienced by the person as a young child. With the progress of therapy, it often becomes clear how this episode (and perhaps recurring episodes), gets to be experienced as something suffered alone. The adult client lives with the memories, but cannot make sense of them because he/she could not get the required acknowledgement from others that the event actually occurred. The isolation and confusion is felt most deeply if the members of the family who were actually part of the scene of terror flatly deny the occurrence or severity of the event(s).
The consequence of such experiences is the embodiment of the fear, disbelief in one’s own experiences, guilt, and a need to distance the self from these feelings.
In therapy the task is to identify the emotions and wounds associated with these early childhood experiences. These are then worked through together with the client in an experiential and empathic atmosphere. Being authentically present with the client, acknowledging that the events, its severity, containing the emotions that the client is too afraid to encounter, and validating the feelings and thoughts that exist with this event have provides relief.
Panic disorder is one of the most common reasons why people seek psychotherapy. The decision to seek a remedy in this way is quite likely to be an instinctual one.
Framcesetti, G. (2013). Gestalt therapy perspective on panic disorder. In Francesetti, G., Gecele, M., & Roubal, J. (Eds.) Gestalt therapy in clinical practice: From psychopathology to the aesthetics of contact. Kindle Ed. position 11673
Solms, M. (2015). The animal within us. Source: Youtube URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfqVIG9bejU.
Solms, M., & Turnbull, O. (2002). The brain and the inner world: An introduction to the neuroscience of subjective experience. Karnac Books.