The first time I saw Helen* was at her house, as she’d described having such bad panic attacks when she tried to go out that she couldn’t come to see me. The furthest that she had made it for the last year was to her front gate and she was worried that even this was becoming more difficult to face.
Helen had spent a lot of time looking back over her past, trying to find the reason as to why she had started having panic attacks. “I can’t find anything though”, she told me “and I’m worried that without finding the reason I’ll never be rid of them”.
This is an idea that people often come to me with – that finding out what triggered an anxiety or a phobia will change things. All it normally does, however, is leave people feeling exactly the same but more aware of some of the reasons why.
Rather than focus on the past I asked Helen to think about the future, and what it would look like without panic attacks. She wanted to be able to go out with her husband, to meet up with friends again, and even just to be able to go to the shop on the corner if she needed something. What surprised me was that it was over six months since her last panic attack.
Helen avoided having panic attacks by avoiding do anything that she thought might prompt one – including going into her front garden. It was really her fear of panic attacks that kept her trapped, rather than the panic attacks themselves.
As with most people Helen’s panic attacks had specific stages, and like other people hers was individual to her. She described the stages as butterflies in her stomach, followed by a dry mouth, then pins and needles, and then trembling and then shaking. Helen had learned the order of her symptoms, and so when she had butterflies in her stomach she would be looking for her mouth getting dry, and anticipate all of the sensations to come. It was as if she stepped on an escalator that carried her further and further into her panic attacks.
We did some fairly intense work, not in hypnosis, but with Helen concentrating on the feelings that she got during a panic attack. I taught her first of all to break up the links between the stages, so that she learned not to anticipate the next one, and then to learn to go from the first straight back to feeling okay.
We did some other work as well to give Helen more control over her reactions – teaching her to feel calm, teaching her about her body’s automatic responses, and to learn not to be afraid, or feel out of control, because of them. Afterwards I had one of my best days at work – when Helen rang and told me that she’d popped out and bought a pint of milk.
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* Helen’s real identity has been protected, and she is happy to share her story.