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Panic Attacks - How Focusing and Mindfulness counselling and psychotherapy can help you recover

Submitted by counsellor John Threadgold


We all experience panic and anxiety from time to time. Sometimes we are responding to genuinely frightening events. If you hear someone breaking into your home, then it is natural to panic and feel anxious, even if it is not the most helpful thing to do.

However, when you are panicking for no reason that you can readily identify, and when your panic attacks are adversely affecting your life, itís at that point that help is required.

People often try a variety of strategies in attempting to overcome their panic. Examples include trying to push away or suppress those feelings, or trying to rationalise them: "I donít have to panic, this railway company has an excellent safety record and I have done this journey many times before without incident". I have also overheard conversations where one person tells their partner or children to "stop panicking, there is nothing to fear". The problem with all of these strategies is that they rarely if ever work. A person may try and push the panicky feeling away, or rationalise, or order someone else to do that, but frequently the panic is at best subdued, and it may get worse or even become overwhelming. Also, the events that trigger the panic attack continue to do so, every time that the same situation is experienced.

The question surfaces: how we can tackle our panic attacks? There are a variety of strategies that can be adopted according to the severity of the panic.

One possibility, for very severe panic attacks, is for you to work out what triggers the panic attacks and avoid those situations. However, this is not however a long term solution and it can be quite debilitating, especially if it prevents you from carrying on with ordinary life activities like getting on a bus or visiting a shop. But it can still be a temporary quick fix.

As a therapist I have found that techniques adapted from Focusing and Experiential Psychotherapy - and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) - can be really effective in helping people deal with their panic attacks.

In Focusing therapy, the therapist will help you explore, in a safe way, some of the things that trigger your panic attack. The most important aspect of the therapy is that you feel emotionally safe. It is therefore important for you to know that you can stop the focusing approach at any time if you feel that you are going to be overwhelmed.

I would then encouraged you to be grounded in your body by doing a gentle body-awareness exercise, particularly feeling and sensing the floor supporting your feet and the chair supporting your body.

The next step is for you to gently get in touch with the panicky feeling. Sometimes this is easy and it comes up readily. If it is more difficult, then I may check if it's safe for you, without being overwhelmed, to imagine yourself approaching one of the situations that triggers the panic. I would ask you to notice where you experience the panicky sensations, feelings and/or thoughts in your body. You might feel them all over, or have panicky thoughts in your head and panicky feelings in a specific part of your body (examples include legs, stomach, chest, arms etc).

The important next step is for you to gently notice these sensations, feelings and thoughts, rather than be overwhelmed by them. Often just saying, "yes I am noticing and saying hello to them" can be enough. I would encourage you not to give in to them, or push them away, or even to rationalise them, but instead to simply treat them with gentle curiosity, as in "I am wondering what this is all about?" One practice that some people find helpful is to picture this panicky part of themselves as if it were a panicky child, treating that child with gentleness and compassion.

When you can notice these feelings without the feelings becoming overwhelming, you may notice that the panicky feelings stay the same, or intensify and then reduce in their power. Sometimes, although not always, you may get an insight into where this panic originated in your life history.

How does this help in real life? Well, frequently clients have informed me that in their actual life, following therapy sessions, the panic attacks begin to lose their intensity, and eventually go altogether.

You can also use mindfulness practices (from MBCT) outside of the therapy room. For example, if you are beginning to experience a panic attack it may be enough to simply acknowledge the panic ("yes, a part of me feels panicky", and then concentrate on your breath, without trying to push away or succumb to the panic. Just alternating between your breath and the panicky feelings may be enough. Clients have informed me that the simple act of noticing and acknowledging these feelings early on (before they are in full force), saying hello to them and focusing on their breath, often leads to a temporary increase in intensity and then the panic just fades away.

Many clients have told me that engaging with Focusing therapy in the counselling room - and simple mindfulness techniques (from MBCT) outside of that - has led to them completely recovering from their panic attacks. Other clients say that although the panic has not completely gone away, they've noticed significant improvements in their life.

This article is not a substitute for getting therapeutic help. However, if you do experience panic attacks then help is at hand: I have helped clients with their panic attacks. The important thing is to find out what works for you.

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