Using EMDR to Treat Panic Attacks (and Panic Disorder)
Some Background on Panic Attacks
Panic disorder is a debilitating condition in which a person regularly experiences sudden, unexpected surges of extreme fear, panic, and often a sense of impending doom. These attacks are overwhelming and cause major distress and difficulties in functioning. Often, a person spends immense energy trying to manage the issue, dreading the next attack, and rearranging their lives to avoid triggers and prevent another one from happening. They often feel out of control of their own bodies and just wait for the next one to occur, and this anticipatory anxiety then contributes to the development of more panic attacks.
Panic attacks occur in approximately 11% of the population in the US. They can occur within the context of numerous other mental health conditions such as depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorders, and a variety of medical conditions. They can be considered expected, as in the case of an identifiable trigger, or unexpected, where there is no obvious trigger or cue at the time of onset.
Symptoms of a panic attack can include the following:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations or shortness of breath or smothering
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
- Dissociative experiences (feelings of unreality or feeling detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control of “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
Treatment for Panic Attacks
The most common treatments for panic attacks include medication and psychotherapy. Medications often include antidepressants as well as anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines. Psychotherapy often encompasses the use of Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) which is based on the notion that a person’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions influence their actions and behaviors. Treatment of panic attacks with CBT involves recognizing and replacing negative thoughts, teaching relaxation techniques to manage physiological symptoms in the body, and systematic desensitization where a person learns how to cope by gradually exposing them to anxiety-producing stimuli.
EMDR Therapy represents another option for the treatment of panic attacks to effectively and efficiently resolve a client’s panic symptoms. These next few sections will describe how!
What is EMDR?
EMDR is a psychotherapy approach that enables people to heal and recover from disturbing life experiences. It has been practiced around the world for the past 30 years or so and is an accepted treatment for trauma and PTSD by the American Psychiatric Association, Veterans Administration, Department of Defense, World Health Organization, and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, among others.
EMDR is based on the idea that current dysfunction stems from insufficiently-processed, maladaptively-stored disturbing memories from the past. Essentially, when a person experiences a traumatic event or something that is beyond the capacity for their brain to process at the time, parts of the memory get stuck causing them to experience problems often many years down the road. In EMDR, the therapist searches for these root dysfunctional memories. They will have the goal of reprocessing them to a neutral state, thereby resolving the current issue. An EMDR therapist leads a client in a series of eye movements. Or, other types of bilateral stimulation (tactile or auditory). At the same time, the client focuses on various aspects of a disturbing memory. During this procedure, clients process the memory often in a positive and rapid way that leads to a peaceful resolution.
See our page on EMDR Therapy for more, in-depth information.
How can EMDR be Used to Treat Panic Attacks?
If we think about how EMDR works, there are a variety of important target memories to reprocess when working with panic attacks and panic disorder. Here are some EMDR targets to consider:
Panic Attack Memories
Panic attacks often occur out of the blue, all of a sudden and totally unexpected. This immense surge of fear and subsequent loss of control is often a traumatic experience in itself. These experiences can be so disturbing that a person can develop anticipatory anxiety related to the possibility of suddenly having another one, which in turn actually leads someone to be more susceptible to one occurring. Reprocessing the memories of major panic attacks as well as the first panic attack is often critical in the treatment process.
As mentioned previously, panic attacks often occur in the context of other mental disorders or surrounding stressful life events. These events, often traumatic or overwhelming at the time, can be worthwhile EMDR targets for reprocessing. Addressing the initial or underlying experience or experiences that led to a person’s nervous system becoming overloaded and then having a panic attack is critical.
Memories of getting triggered or even thoughts of the triggers themselves are additional EMDR targets to consider. For example, let’s say a person’s panic attacks are triggered by being in large crowds. As this occurs over and over again, they begin to associate crowds as a threatening situation and automatically involving panic symptoms. In essence, there is thus a conditioning that happens whereby even being near a crowd ends up evoking the same trauma response as the original event. Targeting and reprocessing these triggers are often critical components to the overall treatment plan.
In EMDR, there is a process in which the therapist targets the future, anticipated disturbance related to a triggering situation. By neutralizing these responses and helping the client have a more positive and calm anticipation of the experience, clients can better approach these situations with ease.
What does the EMDR Therapy Process for Panic Symptoms Look Like?
Your EMDR-trained therapist will take you through a comprehensive assessment, gathering a thorough history of your panic symptoms including the nature of the attacks themselves, their initial onset, surrounding life stresses that have coincided with the disturbing events, current triggers, and what goals you have for treatment (we assume that will be to not have panic attacks anymore!).
They will then put together a comprehensive treatment plan that includes learning relaxation skills and emotional management techniques, targeting and reprocessing all of the problematic memories with EMDR, as well as desensitizing all of your current triggers. In many cases, they may discuss the potential benefits of medication and refer you to a trusted psychiatrist.
Ultimately, the goal is to eliminate the panic symptoms from your life so you can feel calm and in control!
Schedule an Appointment for EMDR Therapy for Panic Attacks in Palm Beach County, FL
At Mangrove Therapy Group, we believe it’s possible for you to feel better and get past your difficulties. Our team of trained therapists is ready to support you in overcoming your panic symptoms. All of our therapists are trained in EMDR therapy. We also specialize in trauma and addiction. Our team is honored to support you both in-person and online. To start your therapy journey, please follow these simple steps:
- Contact Mangrove Therapy to meet with a caring therapist
- Check out our page on EMDR Therapy
- Take a look at some of our blogs on EMDR for Substance Use and Addiction and EMDR for Body Image Issues (and Body Dysmorphia).
- Start overcoming your issues!
Other Services Offered with Mangrove Therapy Group
EMDR therapy isn’t the only service our team offers at our Delray Beach, FL-based practice. Our therapists are experts in treating trauma and PTSD/C-PTSD, depression, body image issues, anger management, anxiety, low self-esteem, and much more. Please feel free to learn more about how we can support you by giving us a call or visiting our blog page today!