Panic Attacks: The Upside of Falling Apart
Falling apart is inconvenient. But, in my NYC therapy practice, I find panic attacks can indicate that you need to fall apart–you’re overwhelmed and your body is telling you that in the form of a panic attack. Therapy can be a place to safely allow yourself to do this and to talk about falling apart.
By falling apart, I mean allowing yourself to have the panic attack. Get the emotions out and cry, while not holding back. Rather than hiding your emotions, you let your guard down to share your fear and anxiety. This allows others to be closer to your pain and fear, and can create a space of intimacy and care where you can let the experience out.
What Is Behind The Panic Attacks?
Say, you are a together parent–new or otherwise, but you’re still waking up with panic attacks at 3am. Or you’re about to get married. Everything with your fiancé is good, but something keeps nagging at you. You can’t sleep and are panicking about details associated with the wedding. Or you’re working toward a promotion, caring for your parent who is aging and in a new relationship all at once. You seem to be on top of everything, but you find yourself suffering from panic attacks at night.
In all these cases, what is causing these panic attacks? Panic attacks, in my anxiety therapy practice, are often a symptom of something larger going on beneath the surface emotionally. They are both a physical and emotional indication that something you can no longer hide is wrong. A panic attack is a build-up of emotions, experiences, thoughts and feelings all combined.
But, this doesn’t mean there’s always a simple answer. Panic attacks are complex–they can mean sadness, fear, trauma, anger or all of the above. They can also result from you not delegating, hiding something going on internally or feeling alone and isolated. Sometimes, there’s just so much going on internally, but you’re blocking the emotional expression so panic becomes the default expression.
Holding Everything Together Isn’t The Answer
In a way, your body, during a panic attack, is telling you, it has to let it out. So it does and it sucks. On one hand, your impulse often is to try to keep holding things together. On the other hand, everything needs to be held together by you, which is a whole lot of responsibility. Sometimes panic attacks reflect not fully letting yourself (and others) get to the pain or the thing behind the panic. Panic attacks force you to feel not so together in that moment.
Falling Apart Helps And Is Necessary To Stop Feeling Overwhelmed
Panic attacks can actually be an opportunity to let yourself fall apart. There are many researchers that will give you aids to prevent falling apart or quickly solve panic attacks, particularly through CBT (cognitive behavior therapy). While these methods do work, they don’t always solve the issue at the root of the panic attack.
For example, if you don’t have the space to fall apart, how will you know how to organize better in balancing parenting, your job and relationships? Or if you don’t fall apart around your wedding and engagement a little, how will you address stressors later?
In my therapy practice, I think falling apart is essential to help get at what is going on with you–what is overwhelming or what needs to be expressed. Falling apart, in a sense, means not hiding or holding everything together to save face. It helps to talk through what you need and want, as well as express what is happening.
Don’t Go It Alone
This doesn’t mean falling apart all by yourself. If you go it alone, panic attacks will likely increase in severity and frequency because you’re either trying to fix things too quickly or push through the panic attack. Instead, you need a collaborator.
Sharing the experience of what is going on internally is essential. With a collaborator, you can’t be alone or hide. It will also help you slowly release what is behind the panic rather than try to solve it quickly. While it might not feel like relief during the moment of a panic attack, it helps to build a relationship where you know you can let out the pain and panic safely with another person. And this helps you get behind what the panic attack represents.
Therapy Allows You To Fall Apart
Your therapist can be a collaborator with whom it is safe to share your panic attack and who can give you a safe space to fall apart. In my anxiety therapy practice, many patients have had panic attacks in my office. I prefer it to them not coming to their therapy session. The therapy office is a very safe place to have a panic attack where someone else (the therapist) can be there with you.
Sometimes I let you know that I’m here for you. Other times, we go for a walk. And often, we just stand in the room and let you release. We can create a space together where the panic doesn’t have to hide or take over. We can take a deep breath, self-soothe, talk through how to calm the panic and not let it overtake or scare you. You can also have the experience of the attack ending in the office so you can talk about what happened with someone and allow yourself to fall apart and talk through that.
Session By Session, Therapy Helps You Pick Back Up So You Can Do Your Life
Having a space, like the therapy room, where you can cry, be scared, not hide, and express fear, frustration, worry, anxiety, sadness and trauma makes it safe to have the emotional experience with someone. It helps to talk about it, connect around it and collaborate. Then, after minute 50, you can agree to connect again as needed and know you can do your life outside the therapy room in between these sessions because you have someone to collaborate with. You also know who and where you can go to experience a safe space to fall apart, as well as explore the thing behind your panic build-up.
This helps in the long run. Figuring out what is behind panic attacks is not a short exercise. You’re building a collaborative relationship between you and your therapist, as well as between the panic and you. This building happens session by session as you fall apart and deconstruct what you’re feeling, sit with the pain, give it space and then, talk logistically about how, what and where you want to pick up and rebuild.