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Panic Attacks, Anxiety, and Anger: The Dynamics of Defense (Part 1)

I’d like to discuss anger’s role in the generation and sustenance of panic attacks and anxiety. To give the matter its due, I’ve decided to present the information in two parts. In this edition, part one, we’ll review what anger is in the eyes of the psychoanalysts and cognitivists. And in part two we’ll have a closer look at how anger directly impacts panic and anxiety. Well, are you ready? Let’s get to work.

The French psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan, a 20th Century pioneer in psychoanalysis, believed aggression is generated as a psychological defense against the threat of something known as fragmentation; the mental and emotional sense of losing control over self-cohesion. Now, fragmentation may present in a feeling of low-grade distress, or it may manifest in all-out panic and terror, for fear of total annihilation. Lacan took the whole matter to infancy where a human is simply a mish-mash of biological functions well beyond internal management. And the only goal one could have is to at least make an effort to pull everything together into some semblance of cohesive identity.

But, Lacan believed any achieved cohesion or collected personality is only a matter of appearances; just a front intended to mask one’s innate vulnerability and weakness. That said, when any outside force poses a threat, which to the individual would reveal the sad and terrorizing truth regarding her ever-looming potential to fragment, she calls upon her most natural and available defense; concealment of her innate frailty. And this is implemented by the immediate presentation of the illusion that she has scads of power right at her very fingertips. Well, that supposed power is aggression; so often expressed and received as anger.

Now, according to the psychoanalysts, regression is a defense mechanism generated by the ego, the mediator between our primal drives (the id) and our social conscious (the superego), that forces an individual to give the heave-ho to healthy and mature coping strategies in the face of intense internal distress. In lieu of employing age-appropriate management strategies, the individual unconsciously elects to revert to patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior from a stage of psychosexual development in which he’s become fixated. Now, this fixation could take him back in time to anywhere from birth through adolescence. And the stage chosen for the reversion is generally one during which some sort of major unresolved conflict or trauma occurred. By the way, Sigmund Freud named the psychosexual stages oral, anal, phallic, latency period, and genital.

You know, interestingly enough, it’s possible that an individual may be unconsciously holding on to pain and anger in a misguided attempt to reconnect with the person who inflicted wounds and generated trauma during a developmental stage in which she’s fixated. And this occurs in a hopeless effort to achieve a wrap and a sense of healing. Indeed, even though the regression and fixation traps the individual within the walls of intense distress, they at least bring him close to the scene of the crime, and the perpetrator(s). And being at least close equates to having a shot at resolution. Does any of this connect with you?

Though not as detailed, I want to at least mention the cognitive point of view regarding anger. The cognitivists would submit that anger is an incredibly powerful emotion grounded in a real or perceived event. They’d go on to say that anger’s presence in our lives may be generated by any combination of genetics, life-experience, poor conflict-management skills, and learned behavior. And they’d probably suggest that most people who display anger blame others, and situations, for all of the hubbub; as opposed to taking responsibility for their misguided expectations. Indeed, if the events at hand don’t jibe with their perception and expectation of the way things should be, boom, all hell breaks loose.

Like the psychoanalysts, the cognitivists would remind you that anger is a deeply rooted defense mechanism that protects us from a variety of situations from which rescue is perceived to be necessary; its power and energy aiding in both emotional and physical survival. So that can be a good thing, but the downside is when anger becomes horribly mismanaged and taken beyond the boundaries of its biological and psychological purpose. It then becomes incredibly dangerous.

Well, that’s a wrap for part one. Hopefully, I provided a nice definitive foundation as we look to part two, and our discussion of how anger directly impacts panic and anxiety.

Your thoughts?