Panic Attacks, PTSD and Me

Posted by Michael Dale Kimmel in Columns 10 Apr 2018

photo by Kevin Tachman for mymag.com

When clients ask me, “Why did you become a therapist?”, my usual response is: “If you knew my childhood history, you’d understand.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five Americans has been sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engage in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight Americans have witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.

Over the past two decades, I have helped hundreds of clients cope with the feelings of panic, anxiety, worry and dread that often result from a history of trauma. People tell me that I’m rather good at it. It’s probably related to my own history of panic attacks, which started in my teenage years.

I rarely have panic attacks anymore, so I was surprised to find myself in the middle of one recently. I woke up in the middle of the night unable to stop shivering (it wasn’t cold), my body was rigid and my mind full of fear. Yep, it was my old “friend” Mr. Panic Attack.

Luckily, I knew what to do: how to sooth myself, assure myself that it would pass (which, it did) and not mistake it for a heart attack or some other physical problem, which it sometimes mimics.

In hindsight, I could see how a difficult experience I had earlier that day had “triggered” the panic attack, but, I was still surprised: I knew that I was going through something unpleasant, but, didn’t think it was a big deal.

My body and mind, however, had a different reaction, and they panicked.

It’s ironic that, as a psychotherapist, it’s good for me to have these “experiences” because it makes me a better therapist – certainly a more “real” one! However, as a person, it’s not much fun.

So I went back to a book that I find a great resource: “The Body Keeps the Score “ by trauma specialist Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk and – as a result – was inspired to write this column.

I’d like to share some tips on how to begin to heal from trauma, aka PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

In light of the recent twitter phenomenon of the “#MeToo” hashtag, it’s clear that many of us are survivors of sexual abuse, harassment or rape. In a way, it’s good that it’s all coming out: people in power have taken advantage of those with less power for centuries, and those of us who have abused/harassed/raped/traumatized have been closeted for too long.

While it sure is good to come out of this closet, it can be very uncomfortable to work through traumatic experiences and come out the other side.

But, it’s do-able. I know, I have done it myself and help my clients do it too.

PTSD-related stuff can creep into your life in a way you may not anticipate: I used to be surprised when I experienced road rage, until I realized that not being able to express my anger (at being traumatized) in my childhood resulted in my expressing it at unexpected times as an adult. My reactions to other drivers’ unskillful behavior were often extreme and I couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that it was my body acting out those trauma-related emotions from my past.

Neuroscience shows us that trauma isn’t just something that happens to us, it’s an “imprint” left by that experience that physically alters our mind, brain and body. Talk therapy alone is usually not enough to alter the body’s hyper-vigilant responses. For real change to take place, the body needs to physically experience that the danger has passed and we’re (finally) safe.

Here are three ways to begin that process:

Psychotherapy modalities that focus on the mind-body connection – like EMDR and bioenergetics – can bring about powerful changes in how your body responds in difficult situations.

Healthy, ongoing relationships (friendships or romance) can be very reparative: we can slowly release the brain patterns that say people are “unsafe” as we learn to trust in and be vulnerable to people who are worthy of our trust.

Yoga, Rolfing, Reiki, therapeutic massage and other types of bodywork help to calm our nervous system so that we can release the physical sensations of past trauma.

These are just three ways to begin to calm your mind/brain/body; there are many others. If you have experienced trauma in your past, please take action to break the pattern of fear, hyper-vigilance and acting out. You can do it.

I did.