Have you ever experienced a sudden, dramatic rise in heart rate, along with rapid shallow breathing, dilated pupils, and cold, clammy hands? Convinced you are having a heart attack, you rush to a doctor or the emergency room, where, after a series of tests, you are informed there is nothing physically wrong with you. “It is ‘only’ a panic attack,” you are told. Advised not to worry, you are given a prescription for Xanax, “which should make it all go away.” When you ask what a panic attack is and why you might have had one, you are told that it is “something that just happens,” and that it is not related to any specific cause.
This is both wrong and unhelpful.
First of all, panic attacks do not happen for no reason. They are based in ongoing anxiety, but the anxiety, rather than being conscious, as with general anxiety disorder, is unconscious. As such, it can’t be addressed directly. So, like a covered pot in which the boiling water cannot be seen by the naked eye, the seething anxiety is unavailable to the conscious mind. A panic attack is like the lid blowing off the pot, revealing the boiling emotions underneath.
Although medication might be helpful in the short run, over the long haul, decreasing the frequency and severity of panic attacks requires a thorough exploration of the underlying anxiety, along with the reasons that anxiety is not being experienced consciously. When the hidden feelings emerge into the light of day, they can be explored and understood. As they become integrated into a more complete you, they will not boil below the surface, and the lid will no longer blow off your emotional pot.