Insufficient Mind in Anxiety Attacks and Disorders

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.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Have you written any posts on bipolar disorder ?

    I’m raising a 13 yr. old stepson who is diagnosed: Bipolar/ADHD/OCD w/anxiety issues, and we have 6 other children as well (large blended family).

    My biggest daily challenge/stress is trying to have some kind of normalcy or trying to provide (maybe create is more accurate) some kind of normacly for the other kids and myself while trying to help a kid with mental illness enjoy his life as well.

    Definitely not an easy thing to achieve ! 😉

    1. It sounds like you have your hands full, Lisa. I haven’t written anything specifically on the topic of bipolar disorders, but the post entitled “Hopeless Problems, Perfect Answers” addresses some of the underlying dynamics.

  2. You present an interesting analogy of the mind as being like a container of emotions.
    Panic attacks can be controlled without drugs. Once, after my mom told me what I was experiencing while I lay on the floor next to her bed feeling as though I was going to die, I decided right then and there to never feel like that again and controlled my breathing to slow down my heart rate and calm my mind. The next time I had the beginnings of a panic attack, I instantly slowed down my heart rate. A few more times of taking control of the panic attack before it became a full blown episode, I never had another panic attack again and have remained panic attack free for years.

    It’s a matter of telling your mind who is in control of your body.

  3. I like to use CBT and the arts in my practice of therapy with people. CBT says that thoughts generate emotions; but often thoughts are too rapid/automatic for clients to detect. They can use their emotions as ‘breadcrumbs’ to lead them to their underlying beliefs.
    Good blog, I read several of the articles and I’ll be recommending it to others.

  4. I once had a therapist who said that ” the mind is very kind, if it feels you can not deal with an emotion it will blank it out of your mind because it does not know how to deal with it” so it is a defence mechanism.

  5. That is why they make valium and xanax. These are miracle drugs for people with anxiety and panic attacks. I’m not kidding. Medicine treats disorders, and these two are wonderful for these disorders.

    1. While Valium and Xanax may provide temporary relief, as benzodiazepines, they are highly addictive and therefore not a long-term solution. If anxiety is a recurring issue and you use these medications regularly, even for a short period of time, your body develops a tolerance for them and requires increasing doses to achieve the same effect. Even worse, once your body becomes habituated to the drug, you will go through withdrawal symptoms once you stop taking it, or in many cases, even if you continue on the same dose because your body has become habituated to it and craves more. Sometimes your body’s reaction to the drugs, once you have become habituated, is even worse than the experience of anxiety. I think these drugs are dangerous and should be used only rarely, in case of emergency.

  6. The thing that bothers me about people using benzodiazepines is that this can be the end of progress. They start feeling better so they stop working on their issues, letting the drug do all the hefty lifting. This works for a while but not indefinitely. And as you say, you can wind up with a drug addiction on top of all your other problems.

  7. I really appreciate you covering this information. I have several clients that I am sending to your blog. Thank you for following me on Twitter ღ(ˆ◡ˆ)ღ

  8. I overwhelming disagree with your choice of words: ‘insufficient’, ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ minds. I think you will find that just using ‘the mind’ in all of these circumstances above will provide the explanation that you want while also not characterizing people/minds as somehow lesser than others. That characterization is wrong of you as a person in your position. Why judge if you honestly don’t have to? These characterizations are not making your point any stronger.

    1. If you look in the dictionary, you’ll see that “weak” and “insufficient” are value-neutral terms; for me, they are descriptively accurate and non-judgmental. I have no control over how other people hear those words, or what they would mean if they were to use them.

  9. Your explanation was helpful in understanding why I can out of the blue feel like I’m about to shatter or disintegrate. It’d be nice to have some information about what to do when it’s the middle of the night and you don’t want to call your psychiatrist or therapist. I took half a klonopin and I’m trying my grounding techniques but I’m still up in the middle of the night looking for an explanation as to why I feel this way and what’s it called and how do I keep myself me. Prayer helps but I have to stay awake to keep praying. Thanks for your blog. I don’t mind the terms insufficient or weak. It’s totally how I feel.

    1. I’m glad that was helpful … and I certainly don’t mean anything negative by using the words that I did. I know it’s not of much immediate comfort, but making a real difference in your anxiety takes time … and therapy, of course. I’d be careful about the meds. They may provide immediate relief but they cause other problems if you use them regularly.

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