How Fear of Disintegration Gives Rise to Anxiety Symptoms and Panic Attacks

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.

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Hatred and Anger as Glue

Responding to an earlier post, Rafael Mendez-Arauz wonders whether the inner “brat” is in reality the “pseudo-self”.   My good friend Marla Estes has stated, on both her own site and in a comment to one of my posts, that she believes anger can be a response to forces from the outside that disturb our tranquility.  I think the three of us would agree that a response of anger or hatred isn’t always primary; that is, it might be a defense to ward off something else. The best way I can illustrate this is to discuss the “drowning kitten.”  This metaphor came to play a central part in the treatment of one of my long-term clients, a very disturbed young woman who was cutting herself when she first came in, and suffered from a kind of depression that bordered on psychosis.  Years later, after much improvement, she’d stabilized and had developed a positive relationship with a man.  From time to time, though, when she was under great stress, she’d erupt in anger at him; with a cruel sort of insight, she would savage him for his faults, spew invective at him, and then feel horribly guilty afterward.  We tried to understand this in various ways but didn’t seem to be making headway. My own theoretical point of view at that time was limiting my understanding, and I’m very grateful to this client (and others like her) who stuck with me long enough for me to grow into understanding.  Real insight came when she described herself during one of these outbursts as “a drowning kitten”, lashing out with her teeth and claws at those around her.   What we then were able to understand was that her rage helped ward off an unbearable experience of anxiety that verged on terror:  she felt she might literally fly into pieces (death), and the outburst of rage helped hold herself together in the face of this disintegration anxiety.  It acted as a kind of “glue”, in the way Marla Estes has described the function of psychological defenses. Continue “Hatred and Anger as Glue”