Anxiety is a psychological state that can have different causes and origins. I’d like to discuss one potential cause of anxiety symptoms and panic attacks with an example from my personal experience.
For the most part, I haven’t been prone to anxiety during my life, but several years ago I had some full-blown panic attacks related to an investment that appeared to be going south. Along with several friends and family members, I’d acquired a real estate asset with short-term financing; in order to get permanent long-term financing, the asset would have to meet certain performance criteria. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t qualify for the new loan and we might lose our entire investment when the short-term loan came due. I was the member of our team primarily responsible for dealing with the bank.
As a clinical psychologist, I’ve led a fairly sheltered professional life; with little experience of the business world, this real estate investment took me far outside my comfort zone, introducing me to range of new and anxiety-producing experiences. The asset seemed to be performing well; it looked as if we were going to meet our performance criteria. Just as we were preparing to submit our new loan application with the deadline approaching, everything suddenly changed. One Friday afternoon as I was getting ready to go away for the weekend, a report came in showing we’d fallen far short of our goals.
As we were driving to our weekend destination, I felt almost unbearably agitated. (Fortunately, I was the passenger or we might not have gotten there alive!) These were my anxiety symtoms: My heart was beating faster than usual and my palms were sweaty; my chest felt tight and I found it hard to breathe. I felt jittery. My thoughts were racing as I spun out disaster scenarios — we’d lose our investment, I’d lose my home, I’d go bankrupt, etc. I couldn’t concentrate or keep up with normal conversation. Most of all, I had a feeling of impending doom.
That night, I kept drifting off to sleep only to awaken abruptly, drenched in sweat, my heart racing, body trembling, short of breath, in a state of pure panic with the sense that I was falling into a bottomless pit. These panic attacks continued throughout the night and I slept fitfully, for five to ten minutes at a time. Although I never articulated it this way to myself at the time, in retrospect, it’s clear I felt as if I were going to die.
(Long story made short: the anxiety continued for weeks but I never again had panic attacks. The asset recovered. We secured our long-term loan.)
The stress of this real estate investment process, so unfamiliar and outside the scope of my usual experience, beyond my capacity to cope with it, made me feel as if I were going to disintegrate. I mean that quite literally — fall into pieces and cease to exist. The anxiety symptoms developed because I felt a very real threat to my existence; in psychoanalytic terms, you might think of it as a form of signal anxiety about impending danger. As I became exhausted and sleepy, my rational, reality-based mind grew weaker and weaker; whenever I drifted off to sleep and relinquished conscious control, that feeling of disintegration intensified, leading to the panic attacks that woke me up.
I believe that the terror of disintegration lies behind many anxiety symptoms and panic attacks; depending on how cohesive our sense of self, the degree of psychological pressure needed to produce them will vary.
Finding Your Own Way:
Think about the most emotionally difficult and psychologically stressful experiences of your life. They’ll most likely involve some kind of profound and unexpected change or loss like the death of a loved one or a traumatic accident. For some of us, even moving to a new city or a job change can set off panic attacks. Did you have similar anxiety symptoms? Can you relate to my terror about disintegration?
One of my clients with a very fragile sense of self had panic attacks during a long and difficult childbirth, experienced as a literal threat to her life. If you’ve given birth to a child, did your experience in any way resemble hers?
For any of you who have suffered from PTSD, this post should resonate. Exposure to emotionally overwhelming experiences can make you feel terrified that you’ll disintegrate under the psychological pressure. The more fragile your sense of self, the less it will take to stir up these feelings and anxiety symptoms. For some people, the threat of any kind of intense emotion can set of panic attacks.
I’ll have more to say about the link between internal states of catastrophe and anxiety symptoms in another post.