Stop panicking – how to deal with panic attacks

Dear Dr. Mo: I’ve been experiencing panic attacks. Is there something other than pills I can do to stop them from happening?

Dear reader: Since I am no psychiatrist, my answer will come out of my own experience and how I had dealt with the same problem years ago.

Panic attack can strike out of nowhere

Let me tell you one thing first – you are not alone.

Over the years I have spoken to many people who have had some variety of a panic attack or an anxiety attack – my interest in the subject wasn’t only medical in nature, it was also personal as I was trying to understand my own struggle and figure out a way to deal with it as well as to help others deal with it.

It was many years ago when it first struck me. It was sudden, out of the blue and right at the time when I was studying the many different diseases a human being can develop and all the complications and adverse outcomes of such conditions. Naturally, I instantaneously began thinking of all the worst case scenarios and thought to myself: “This is it – I’m going to die tonight.”

My heart was racing, I was consumed with fear, I was sweating, I started to breathe faster as I was expecting to have a cardiac arrest at any moment – it was a vicious circle, feeding on itself only to grow stronger and stronger until fear and panic were unbearable. I ended up in the Emergency Room that night where doctors thought I was on drugs and had asked me to come clean and tell them what I had taken.
As with all panic attacks, it subsided on its own and I was discharged home with no definitive diagnosis. Although I am pretty sure they remained convinced I was doing drugs.

This was my first panic attack – one of many to follow.

It took about 6 or 7 of these terrifying episodes to realize there was nothing physically wrong with me and that whatever was causing these strange symptoms, had to be coming from my mind.
I started sessions with a clinical psychologist but had given up after 4 or 5 when I realized I was withholding information, distorting my answers and basically – lying to her. The whole thing was useless and was only costing me time and money. She had prescribed me some anxiolytics that helped mitigate the problem but did not remove it. I was frustrated and convinced I was going crazy.

I continued my research and stumbled upon a brilliant book called “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, Europe’s famous psychiatrist and psychotherapist who had survived horrors of Nazi death camps during which he had developed his (revolutionary) approach to psychotherapy known as Logotherapy. I encourage you to read this book and research more on Logotherapy and the Third School of Viennese  Psychiatry as I will only discuss the core of his approach in this post.

According to Logotherapy (Logos is a Greek word for ‘meaning’) the primary motivational force in man is the striving to find meaning in one’s life. Frankl discovered that those who had such meaning had the best chances of surviving through the horrors of the concentration camps. You will find much more on this in Frank’s book but let me tell you what that book did for me, and what could potentially do for you.

I have learned that my irrational fears that set off my panic attacks were most likely neurotic fears (similar to those in many different phobias). These fears have one thing in common – a condition called ‘anticipatory anxiety’. This condition produces exactly the thing of which we are afraid and it feeds on itself to grow stronger. In my case, it was the fear of a horrible, adverse event, most likely death. The more I tried to cancel it, to push it aside and to not be fearful, the more afraid I was and here, in this very mechanism, did the Logotherapy find a way to easily deal with it and help me:

What one forcibly wishes is made impossible by a forced intention.

To illustrate this point, this excessive intention or ‘hyper-intention’ Frankl said was most commonly found in sexual neurosis. Frankl writes: “The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, the less they are able to succeed. Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.”

Logotherapy bases its technique called “paradoxical intention” (hyper-intention) on the twofold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes.

So, my discovery of this “paradoxical intention” had helped me never to go through another panic attack again.

What did I do? And what can you try as well?

I simply invited it – I wanted it to happen. At first sign it may happen, I wasn’t trying to suppress it like before (only to ignite it faster) but rather I was trying to make it the strongest panic attack ever – I kept inviting it to happen, focusing my attention on its onset, making sure I concentrated as much as I could on this huge desire to experience the strongest panic attack ever… and, it never happened.  My strong intention on having it made it impossible to happen.

This simple technique did what pills and therapies and all the doctors couldn’t – I was free.

I am not sure if this works for everyone, but it would appear that the technique has a very powerful influence on our mind and that it can break the spells of neurotic fears once and for all. Frankl accounts for many such successes in his book.

I think panic attacks are one of the ways we vent out or suppressed emotions, fears and all the pressures we are under every day – it is a way our bodies and minds are trying let out some steam – it is a warning that the engine might be overheating.
Logotherapy could be an effective way to control these attacks but you should look inside yourself deeper and think about the reasons, which could be causing it in the first place.

Yours in health,

Dr. Mo