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Panic Attacks From a Psychoanalytic and Cognitive Perspective

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy.

Sometimes people ask me why I spend so much time on what generates panic attacks. My usual response is, beyond my natural curiosity, I simply don’t see how one can manage something if one doesn’t fully understand just what that something is. And, at least to me, a complete understanding has to include insight into genesis. I mean, if you were experiencing chronic chest pain, wouldn’t you want to know what was causing it? And let’s no forget that knowing why something happens leads to more efficacious management strategies and techniques.

I have always placed emphasis on both the psychological and physical contributors to panic attacks. But, in this article I’d like to stick with the psychological and address two theories of treatment. Needless to say, there are many floating about; however, I’d like to briefly discuss the psychoanalytic and cognitive points of view with regard to the generation of panic attacks.

Psychoanalytic
A psychoanalyst would likely submit the generation of panic attacks goes back to infancy and childhood. They would, however, acknowledge that panic attacks may also occur as a result of assorted cues in the present, such as the fear of having a panic attack in a situation where one recently occurred. For the record, an attack occurring within this context could either be situationally-bound or situationally-predisposed. The psychoanalysts consider both conscious and unconscious panic triggers as representations of intense early life wishes and fears. So, panic attacks, in large part, occur in response to cues associated with long past psychological and biological threats to one’s existence. By the way, these cues are based in retained themes of intensely feared eventualities such as castration, separation, and parental disapproval.

Cognitive
A cognitivist would likely submit that a panic attack is a manifestation of an intense feeling of helplessness in the face of intense danger. The vicious cycle of panic, which we know all too well, is generated and sustained by combining the very real terror of vulnerability with one’s traditional distorted thought and feeling responses. Within the context of human genetic predisposition, which from a phylogenetic perspective leans toward the anxious for purposes of survival, it naturally flows that these thought and feeling responses appear to be designed to produce the belief that out-of-control internal distress can lead to grave danger, even disaster. Doesn’t it make sense that it’s this dynamic that so often generates the intense need to seek a caregiver for immediate assistance? I mean, at this point all bets on reason and logic are absolutely off as our primal instincts take over. And then all sorts of physical symptoms arrive on the scene because our mind really believes we’re in imminent danger, and it’s getting us ready to fight the good fight. And the snowball just rolls on down the hill from there.

Finally, the cognitivists would likely submit that though panic attacks are often thought of as spontaneous, some sort of event had to have tripped the trigger. Who knows, the culprit may have been a sudden physiological change; say, feeling faint upon standing, sensing a rapid or palpitating heart beat, or detecting a shortened breath. The thought is that events such as these, in the absence of reason, are interpreted as indicators of immediate physiological danger. And, boom, off to the races we go.

It’s my belief that, individually, both the psychoanalytic and cognitive angles hold great merit. But, for my money a combination of the two is truly the ticket. I mean, so okay, according to the cognitivists a physiological change, such as a shortened breath, may trip the panic trigger. Well that’s great; however, I’d like to know what existed unconsciously that led to the perception that that shortened breath was a signal of coming catastrophe. Hmmm.

As always, the more we understand about our circumstances, the better we become at managing them.