Anxiety and panic disorders are getting increasingly common among young adults. This is a phenomenon observed and mentioned by mental health professionals who work in Europe, Asia and America. There are several hypothesis to this observation. The logic that resonates most with me is the one by a psychiatrist colleague from Italy, Gianni Francesetti.
Francesetti attributes panic disorder to “an acute attack on solitude (loneliness)”. This actually implies that the symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks, while observed to be affecting an individual person, is in fact contributed by this person’s relationship to the world around him/her. Why? Because we cannot be lonely if we are in contact with some other persons in the environment. Hence to be lonely is to be left in the cold with on one for company.
The word panic is descriptive of the state of being left exposed in the wilderness. It is said to have been derived from the name of the Greek god, Pan. Reading the characteristics of Pan one would derive the keywords, all-encompassing, wilderness, solitude, rejection, stomach-churning cry and death. The word panorama describes the wide open field space. A young animal separated suddenly from its mother and exposed to the cold environment would panic. In its panic it would cry out.
Neuroscientist Panksepp’s lecture explains to us how the panic pathway in the brain is wired up. He also tells us in the video below that the baby animal in panic would be quiet again once it is held warmly. If it were not held, it cries would ultimately stop, and the animal would fall into a state of what looks like depression in humans. The panic system generates loneliness and sadness, and it is observed to be the gateway to depression.
The panic system is related in mammals (including humans) to separation distress and over exposure. Human suffers experience the onset of panic disorder usually as young adults, the age when one leaves the parental home.
Most clients who complain of panic attacks are independent and forward-looking people. Feelings of being exposed or separated are not part of their conscious awareness. These experiences belong to the client as toddlers or babies, and are overwhelming. Many clients manage to uncover this hidden past experience after months of psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy for Anxiety or Panic Attacks – A case study
Clarise, 26 years old, a student who holds also a job as a medical receptionist. She had her first panic attack when she was 20 and had just left her family home and moved to another country, Vienna. She explained that the onset of subsequent panic attacks happen when she is about to leave the family home when she is on holiday there. Strangely, this is also related to her leaving her younger brother, Mike.
Proud of being an independent worker, she came to therapy often talking dryly about happenings at work, talking about panic attacks and medication, and avoiding topics about her relationships. I could perceive her avoiding experiencing her emotions, and her intense fear of going there. Sessions in the first 4 months felt slow. I soon had difficulty remembering her among the other clients.
The slow, almost deadening atmosphere in the sessions soon became clear to me. I felt like I was in conversation with someone who was trying to make herself invisible to me. Yet I felt a longing between us for contact. Clarise came every week for therapy faithfully. I decided on several experiments during the sessions. The most useful of which was very simple: to walk around the room as we spoke. Clarise, while walking, became more animated. It seemed as if in order to make herself invisible, she kept her body still. When she had to walk around, her energy flowed. She appeared then more alive and open to being in conversation with me.
Over time, Clarise was able to talk about her childhood. Keywords were: Unwanted child. Emotionally abusive mother who was devaluing, abandoning, de-validating of her feelings, denying, contradicting. Her mother favors her younger half-brothers. As a child she had to look after the boys. She was also competitive with mother with regard to the brothers. She became overtly responsible for Mike.
Her childhood memories were fragmented, indicating a kind of trauma, perhaps from neglect. Only mother’s feelings of those days could be recalled by Clarise. In the therapy room, it felt to me as if her mother always present. Sometimes I would use the mother’s “presence” as an intervention.
Clarise admits to be constantly yearning for attention. This is a paradox, because of the way she unconsciously makes herself invisible. She admits to flattening her voice to control emotions. Clarise has little body awareness, which she became aware of as we walked around the room.
Gestalt Psychotherapeutic intervention for panic attack symptoms
Clarise’s case shed light on the polarities that emerged during our work.
- Fear vs. Curiosity,
- Attention yearning vs. Self-hiding
- Being forgettable vs. Forgetting
“I must be afraid so that mother can feel good about herself.”
“When my boyfriend is not at home, I am not in danger of having a panic attack.”
“I make my breathing shallow to press against my chest, so that I won’t cry here.”
Clarise also exhibited tendency for Self-ISOLATION, even if it were unconscious to her. One of her strategies was to dissociate. To disappear. To forget. She admitted that as a child, it was “Safer to be unseen.” If her mother was at home, she would not be able to predict if she would be treated with kindness or anger.
Clarise realised that she could use illness and lately the panic symptoms to garner support from people around her. “When I’m in dire straits, people will come to me and they won’t harm me.”
Looking at PSYCHOPATHOLOGY from the perspective of the relationship between client and therapist.
In the therapeutic alliance, suffering is not located only within the client, but is an emergent phenomenon. This means that we as therapist can feel, perceive ourselves as being part of the symptom. We are impacted by the symptom.
When I am able to acknowledge how being with this client impacts me– in this case the feeling of stagnating stillness and forgetting– I am able to adjust my being with her. In so doing, the atmosphere changes. In gestalt therapy we acknowledge this the as the field.
3 levels of observing anxiety disorder symptoms based on this case study
|Single person Level||Dyadic Interaction Level||Aesthetic Field Level|
|“My client has panic attacks.”||“I forget the client. I overlook her. She seems to make herself invisible to me.”||“There is stillness and monotony in the air. I can hear the clock tick. The room feels empty. I feel tingly. There is a sense of longing.”|
What I attempt to present here is a cutting-edge perspective of treating symptoms of panic disorder in a patient in the clearest way possible in a blog. Medication and quick therapies have not managed to effect lasting relief for most patients of anxiety. This is why we, as gestalt therapists, look to the broader field. We look beyond the person. We have found useful to see the client in context of the socio-cultural environment. We use this field during the session. We move ourselves in the field. We allow ourselves to be impacted. In this way we make small adjustments. These work as tender changes within the psyche of the client.
Remembering the hypothesis that panic is an acute attack of loneliness, the work with Clarise revealed it to be so. Although Clarise never admitted that she was lonely, she revealed her natural tendency for self-isolation. In making herself forgettable, it was I who ended up feeling left alone in the therapy room. Noticing this and sensing our longing for contact, I could affect the field around us. When the field changed, the client eventually changed. Clarise learned to cry. This was a relief to her. It was a relief to feel safe and be vulnerable. It was a relief to her that she did not have to go into a state of panic to afford company.
Francesetti, G. (Ed.). (2007). Panic Attacks and Postmodernity. Gestalt therapy between clinical and social perspectives. FrancoAngeli.