Panic is on a continuum of anxiety, with panic attacks often being the panic without apparent cause. Panic serves to protect the individual in situations of extreme environmental danger. A Panic Attack is the experience of panic in a situation where there is no (apparent) extreme danger. The client 'knows' (mostly) that they are not going to stop breathing; not going to have a heart attack; not going to suffocate and yet this knowledge does not seem to help.
Panic attacks can often arise all at once, like a sudden lightening bolt on a clear day. Clients often experience a cold sweat, palpitations, shortness of breath and a feeling of being out of control. There does not seem to be a tangible cause for the client’s experience and yet the responses resemble a trauma response. In panic attacks, as opposed to a trauma event, there is no apparent source for the client's anxiety. Clients are dealing with the consequences of something that has not been (fully) experienced. It is possible that the trauma is real but has been kept in the realm of the unsayable but equally well there may not have been a trauma.
As a Gestalt Therapist I will treat panic attacks not only as individual clinical symptoms but also in relation to the context in which they occur. In therapy the aim is to construct a new sense of security that encompasses who the person is or has become.
The process of breathing is important and particularly paying attention to exhalation. People having a panic attacks tend to hold their breath. This may also lead to hyperventilating and fainting. Breathing exercises are a valuable tool to explore. Other interventions that anchor the client solidly and safely in the here and now allow them to experience safety. This helps to give the brain a focal point and to calm down. With practice clients gain more control over their feelings.
Panic attacks can represent the beginning of a journey that can lead the client toward different and possibly more up-to-date creative solutions for their lives.
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