The Maze of Fear: Panic Disorder
We all know the experience of panic – a sudden fear, so powerful that it takes us over. A terrible dread that pushes anything else in our experience out to the periphery. We feel agitated, urgent, incapable of returning to normal until a specific danger or worry is resolved. During panic, fear is our only reality. Heart palpitations, nausea, sweating, dizziness, and shortness of breath seize our bodies. These physical reactions are overpowering.
Panic overrides logical thinking. It doesn’t help to have someone say “Don’t panic!” because panic is already underway in the body, warranted or not. The panic reaction will just need to be borne out until it subsides. We are unable to do much more, when gripped by panic, than wait for it to pass, perhaps doing instinctively soothing things like taking deep breaths, splashing water on our faces, or hugging a loved one as we wait for our nervous system to regulate itself.
For some of the population, panic is a blessedly rare, short-term state. We experience panic on occasions when panic is appropriate. We feel panic when someone or something important to us is in danger, when a situation we are responsible for seems to be veering out of control and immediate action is required of us to fix it.
For people who do not have a special story with the topic of panic, panic in the moment may even help us take needed action – grab the small child out of the street, say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. People who do not have panic issues will not continue to feel overwhelming fear once danger is past.
Not so for the growing portion of our population who suffer from what’s known as Panic Disorder. These ones among us have a very special challenge – they are subject to the panicked state taking them over at any time, out of nowhere. Panic can seize their bodies into its paralyzing grip even when there is nothing discernible to be terrified of – no auto accident, no lost child.
Rather than being useful for any kind of quick action in the moment, panic immobilizes them. To boot, the state of feeling is often prolonged. Panic attacks may go on for hours and hours, tormenting the sufferer in vicious cycles of thought that turn and turn in circles. In addition to the physical discomfort of shallow breath, dizziness, and flighty feelings, people often believe that they are dying or going crazy. That is why some heart attacks turn out to “just” be panic attacks – panic attacks feel like death. Panic is toxic to the body, mind and spirit and it feels that way as well.
A woman with panic disorder feels she is at the mercy of her panic attacks, because she does not know how to end them. Typically the panic is so uncomfortable to her body, mind and spirit, that she develops intense fear of the state of panic itself, and may shut down her outer world as a way of avoiding potential triggers. She may skip anything that she suspects could set her off, be it public speaking opportunities or simply stepping outside of the house. The fear of having another panic attack is part of the disorder itself, like a snake eating its own tail.
Many women with panic disorder become ensnared in addiction. That’s because anxiolytics, or substances which induce relaxation, such as benzodiazepines and alcohol, are extremely addictive, and even more so for women with panic. These substances are deadly, especially when used in combination and in ways not prescribed.
A woman with panic disorder has a nervous system which is easily triggered into fight-flight mode, and which, once there, does not easily find its way back to peace. She needs help: how can she learn to calm down, and experience the peace she craves as a baseline mode of being?
There are many therapies and approaches which are helpful in resetting a woman’s nervous system and retraining her to be able to modulate her own panic response.
Healing typically involves becoming aware of and neutralizing triggers through some cognitive work. Deep problematic thoughts, like “I am not safe” “I am in danger” “I’m dying”, can be corrected. They can be reprogrammed, rewritten into thoughts that make her feel safe: “I am capable,” “I can handle this situation”. This is accomplished through gradual cognitive retraining.
EMDR and other trauma therapies can help with deep reprogramming. Trauma work helps neutralize the emotional charge of (often unconscious) memories of previous overwhelming situations. Trauma work helps find the part inside that keeps pressing the panic button, and helps that part heal, feel loved and come to see that she is safe now, she doesn’t need to press that button any more.
At the same time, healing requires getting in touch with the body and helping it have experiences of prolonged, sustained, complete safety. Many women with panic have lost touch with this feeling, if indeed they ever felt it, and are haunted by feelings of being in some kind of survival-related danger, which can include fear of abandonment by loved ones, fear of rejection from social groups, fear of invasion of her body boundaries, a deep fear of not being safe and intact on the one hand, not supported and sustained on the other.
Healing from panic disorder starts with creating longer and longer lasting feelings of deep safety, peace, comfort and wellbeing in the body. Many therapies help a woman create feelings of safety for herself, including Somatic Experiencing, Massage, Expressive Arts, and healing groups.
Recovery from panic disorders also involves getting adept at getting one’s physiology out of the maze of panic once a panic attack is underway, through following sensations of safety and pleasure. Grounding exercises, breath work, massage, trauma-informed bodywork, yoga, and nutritional counseling can all support a woman in this body re-education path.
Once a woman knows the feeling of safety in herself, and is skilled in guiding herself out of the maze of fear back into feelings of safety, she will feel much more empowered in relation to panic. That way, if panic does occasionally get rolling in her system, she is able to turn it around sooner. Each time she is able to turn it around, she becomes more confident in her basic ability to get herself out of a panic attack if it should happen. Gradually, therefore, she has less fear of situations that might trigger her, as she understands that no matter what happens, she has the ability to get herself out of the maze.
A woman must learn to do this without the assistance of drugs and alcohol, or she will never be free from them. Villa Kali Ma is a facility which is well supplied with practitioners who understand the body, mind, and spirit connections, and how these intersect with the issue of panic. We know how a woman with this pattern can heal herself with support and guidance from loving healers and peers.
If you know the hellish state of panic all too well, please know that heavenly feelings of deep peace, safety and relaxed wellbeing can be yours, without substances. We would be honored to help you discover and sustain those good feelings within, that are your birthright!