This discussion may sound a little abstract at first but it’s crucial for understanding many psychological difficulties, especially in the realm of anxiety attacks and disorders. It concerns the literal inability to tolerate one’s emotions. In an earlier post, I discussed how hatred can function as a kind of glue to hold the psyche together when a person is unconsciously terrified of falling into pieces under the pressure of intense experience; in my most recent post, I described the fear of psychic disintegration lying behind some anxiety symptoms and panic attacks. If you haven’t done so already, it would help to read both those posts before this one.
In my psychotherapy practice, I find it useful to think of the mind as a sort of container for emotional experience. Think of emotions and feelings as shapeless liquid and the mind as a vessel that holds and gives them form — that is, it makes sense of them and gives them meaning. I know this sounds a little abstract; an example might help make it less so. Say I’m watching a movie and I start to feel a sensation around my eyes and at the back of my throat. There’s a tightness in my chest, too; my breathing becomes a little quivery. My mind brings all those sensations together, and from past experience, I understand that I am feeling sad. This isn’t a conscious process, of course, but I do believe it’s how we assign meaning to inchoate experience.
What if my psyche is weak and I have little capacity to tolerate my emotional experience? Or what if the feelings are overwhelming for even a strong mind? In those cases, my mind or psyche cannot contain the emotions; I’ll feel so endangered that I need a way to escape from them. In an earlier post about a bulimic client, I described one such method — vomiting as a literal evacuation of unbearable emotions and feelings; some people get rid of them through projection, an unconscious fantasy where intolerable experience is felt to be mentally expelled into somebody else; others resort to a kind of mental splitting characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder, where the overwhelming experience is walled off from the psyche.
With some people who suffer from anxiety attacks and disorders, however, they can neither tolerate nor get rid of their experience and feel as if it will make them quite literally fall apart. Instead of holding or containing their feelings, they fear emotional experience will shatter their insufficient mind and as a result, they will disintegrate. On some level, as I described in my most recent post, this is felt as a very real threat to one’s life.
I believe this process lies behind a great many anxiety attacks and disorders. Some of the symptoms associated with these conditions are: difficulty concentrating; depersonalization and feelings of unreality; a fear of losing control or going crazy; and a feeling of being overwhelmed. What these symptoms mean is that the emotional experience is so huge it overwhelms the insufficient mind, disorders its processes and threatens the integrity of the self. It’s important to note that anxiety attacks are the response to emotions threatening to emerge, emotions felt to be unbearable.
In order to understand this experience, we need to rescue language that has become overused and restore its full meaning. In a very literal sense, I’m talking about emotions that are overwhelming, unbearable, intolerable. Going back to the container metaphor, the emotions-as-liquid are too great in volume for the vessel attempting to hold them (the mind) and threaten to split it apart or break it. Here’s an everyday way of talking that exactly captures the idea: “He was shattered by his wife’s death.” On some level, I think we mean this in a literal sense.
With the repeated experience of anxiety attacks, the person becomes attuned to the kinds of experience that might stir up unbearable emotions; they learn to avoid those situations at all costs, leading to agoraphobia and other kinds of phobias. I’ll have more to say about those anxiety disorders in another post.
Finding Your Own Way:
Behavioral treatments for anxiety attacks and disorders usually involve systematic desensitization, a term you’ve probably heard before, where in gradual steps over time, the client is helped to develop tolerance for the anxiety-producing situation. In psychodynamic psychotherapy, a therapist would help the client learn to understand and
tolerate the underlying emotions that evoke anxiety; in time, as his or her mental capacities grow, these emotions will no longer be felt as overwhelming. If you’re a person who suffers from anxiety attacks, this may be a task you can’t tackle on your own. You may need a therapist with a psychodynamic perspective to help.
For those of us lucky enough not to suffer from such debilitating anxiety, these ideas are still useful. I’m sure you can imagine situations that would literally overwhelm you. For example, the idea of facing gunfire in warfare terrifies many people; even physically courageous soldiers have been shattered by battlefield experiences in Iraq, resulting in numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Many women I’ve known fear childbirth for similar reasons. Are there experiences you avoid because you know that the way they’ll make you feel will literally be intolerable? It might be encounters with your family that threaten you. I’ve known people who have been so shattered by Christmases past they completely shun their families during the holiday season. That can be a healthy way to take care of yourself but it has some features in common with phobias and other anxiety disorders.
For the person who suffers from anxiety attacks, there often is no way to avoid threatening situations because they’re too numerous and unpredictable. Dangerous unknown feelings can emerge at any moment, without warning, setting off a panic attack. You might have felt something similar though less powerful. Maybe on occasion you have felt tense and on edge without understanding why. It was probably because some unacknowledged emotion was pressing into awareness. You may not have felt your existence threatened by it but on some level, you knew it would be extremely unpleasant.