Panic & Anxiety Attacks:

Early Origins
Symptoms and Dangers

by John A. Speyrer

Edvard Munch - The Scream

A recent news release recounted a study of more than 3,000 older (ages 51 to 83) women which found that having panic attacks could signal upcoming death from vascular and other causes.

Alvin Powell from Harvard University's News Office wrote,

". . . (P)anic attacks were relatively common, suffered by about 10 percent of those in the study. While heart attacks and strokes were relatively rare, those suffering panic attacks had four times the risk of heart attack, three times the risk of heart attack or stroke, and twice the risk of dying from any cause as those who didn’t.

“This adds panic attacks to the growing body of evidence that emotional states and psychological symptoms are relevant to physical outcomes,” said Jordan Smoller, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and the study’s lead author.

Smoller said the link between panic attack and health remains unclear. The study controlled for 14 known variables, including age, race, income, body mass index, alcohol consumption, smoking, hormone use, high cholesterol or blood pressure, level of physical activity, atrial fibrillation, depression, and history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease. A panic attack’s influence on health appears to be independent of any of those factors, Smoller said." (Study was from the October, 2007 Archives of General Psychiatry)

Yet, it is not only older women who are susceptible to the ill effects of anxiety and panic attacks. Another Harvard study found that men who complain of chronic anxiety are six times more likely than those who are free of it to suffer from sudden cardiac death. Dr. Arthur Janov in, Why You Get Sick, How You Get Well (1996), wrote about that study and concluded that ". . . anxiety is becoming one of the strongest risk factors for sudden death by cardiac arrest. . . . " (p. 105)
[Definition of cardiac arrest from the American Heart Assn. website: "Electrical impulses in the diseased heart become rapid (ventricular tachycardia) or chaotic (ventricular fibrillation) or both. This irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia) causes the heart to suddenly stop beating."]

* * *

Although not a codable disorder, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) lists the symptoms of panic attacks:

  1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  2. Sweating
  3. Trembling or shaking
  4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  5. Feelings of choking
  6. Chest pain or discomfort
  7. Nausea or abdominal distress
  8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  9. Feelings of "unreality" or being detached from oneself
  10. Fear of losing control or going crazy
  11. Fear of dying
  12. Numbness or tingling sensations
  13. Chills or hot flushes

The symptoms of an anxiety or panic attack are in reality the unconscious memories of events which most of us experienced during our earliest beginnings - the traumas of our births. Panic attacks are blocked feelings which attempt to rise into our consciousness. Emotional and physically traumatic triggers in the present - ones which have the emotional and/or physical content of the repressed traumatic feelings in our past awakens and gives energy to those blocked feelings.

Psychiatrist Frank Lake found that, from a trauma viewpoint, births could be placed within four categories. In the third category, the pain and suffering of the fetus becomes of life and death proportions in the when the fetus' head is "...jammed in the pelvis and can move neither forwards nor backwards. The will to return to the womb is as useless as the will to move forward. Only one struggle is possible, the struggle to live in spite of growing distress, crushing of the head, and lack of oxygen. The identity of someone suffering from an anxiety state not uncommonly has this biological emergency as its primary determinant." (my emphasis).

Later in life such a

"...person may wake in the middle of the night with a sense of intense panic, fast-beating heart, breathlessness, sweating, extreme heat or cold, and though the struggle is certainly to maintain life, death seems to be just round the corner. When this emergency passes there is a great sense of relief that life is restored, together with room to turn round, room to move and room to breathe."

However, it is in the most traumatic type of birth, the fourth category, where the fears of death are developed. Here, the fetus' desire for immediate annihilation becomes automatic as "(t)here is a limit to the pain and panic any living organism can bear. When that limit has been reached there is a sudden, dramatic and drastic reorientation of the whole will. Instead of struggling to live, the organism is struggling to die. Life under such conditions is intolerable. Death is preferable."1
[All of the references above are from psychiatrist Frank Lake's booklet, Personal Identity -- It's Origin, pages 7 - 9.]

Once again is the listing of symptoms of anxiety/panic attacks, but this time followed by a description of an actual birth regressive experience involving a particular symptom of a panic/anxiety attack. These are described by therapists, authors and patients in the regressive psychotherapies. Clicking on each link accesses the section of the article on this website from which the material was quoted.

1. Palpitations, Pounding Heart, or Accelerated Heart Rate.

  • "My heart is beating fast, I'm fighting desperately for breath." "I'm working hard to breathe now." "Please do anything, but let me breathe." "I can't understand why I am breathing so hard." "I'm being smothered. I'm just fighting for existence."
    --Frank Lake, M.D. in Birth Trauma, Claustrophobia and LSD Therapy

  • ". . .suffocation and feelings of lack of oxygen: cardiac distress and palpitations; sweating; blushing; chills and hot flushes; and muscular twitches can be traced back to the complex of somatic phenomena, which form a logical and understandable part of the birth experience."
    --Stanislav Grof, M.D. in Birth Trauma and Its Relation to Mental Illness, Suicide and Ecstasy

    2. Sweating.

  • "The symptoms observed under these conditions seem to represent the typical birth phenomena in a mitigated form: intense headaches, muscular tension, sweating, cardiac distress and palpitations, oppression, diarrhea and "faiblesse irritable" (feelings of weakness, but at the same time tension and easy irritability)."
    --Stanislav Grof, M.D., in Birth Trauma and Its Relation to Mental Illness, Suicide and Ecstasy.

  • "Some physical birth trauma symtoms which I re-experienced in primals included.... profuse body perspiration. . . ."
    --John A. Speyrer, in Diary of a Self-Primaler

    3. Trembling or Shaking.

  • "When I first came to this place, I was reexperiencing a lot of feelings that went back to birth -- a lot of tremendous pressure, choking, gagging, spluttering, writhing around, incredible body tension. For a long time I had the feeling that my body wanted to shake, just shake to pieces. Sometimes I would feel it inside my hands, or inside my legs, my head, or my neck -- some part of me would shake for awhile. But as soon as it would start to happen, my body tension would multiply ten times. I would lock up like steel, and that would stop the shaking straight away. And for months and months I went through that where I'd shake a little bit, and once again the body tension would clamp down and I couldn't shake. Gradually, I could let more and more happen until my whole body would be shaking uncontrollably all over the place, which is what people call a convulsion or a seizure."
    -- Anonymous in Reflections From Within - The Denver Primal Journal

  • During a birth regression, "The body generally goes through movements of struggling, twisting, twitching, convulsive movements, tremors, and severe shaking."
    --Frank Lake, M.D., in Birth Trauma, Claustrophobia and LSD Therapy

    4. Sensations of Shortness of Breath or Smothering.

  • "Breathing difficulties were almost universal; 10 of the 13 subjects, in fact, provided unsolicited and explicit reports of breathing problems. Several subjects considered their breathing difficulties to be quite painful. There were reports of not getting enough air, of choking or feeling suffocated, or desperately attempting to get more air, and of becoming terrified when such attempts failed. Often breathing was shallow, came in jerks, and spasms, or stopped for long periods."
    -- Stephen Khamsi, Ph.D., in Birth Feelings A Phenomenological Investigation

  • "I began working with a pre- and peri-natal therapist over a year ago, and have connected with the primal, disowned feelings that threatened to overwhelm me as a tiny, ego-less being—intense, smothering feelings about annihilation itself, which laid the foundation for my very psyche."
    -- Marcy Axness, Ph.D., in Many Hands: An Adoptee's Healing Journey

    5. Feelings of Choking.

  • "When a birth primal starts, it often begins with a sense of total darkness even if there is illumination in the room, legs begin making pushing movements, there may be a cry of "let me out" a feeling of blocked movement, choking and anxiety due to a lack of oxygen, extreme sensations of cold or of heat though there have been no weather changes in the room, all of which changes to massive terror and fear of death if the primal continues."
    --Daniel Miller, Ph.D., in Birth, Death and Organic Energy - Part 1

  • "I felt the forceps on my head, I was choking and coughing and suddenly went into the fetal position."
    --Gabriela Ortiz-Monasterio, in Being Born and Giving Birth

    6. Chest Pain or Discomfort.

  • "The terrible discomfort is still in my upper chest and with Tony once more pressing down on it, I begin to make strange little sounds which I repeat like a mantra. These sounds then become the cries of a new born baby and last for around ten minutes or so."
    -- Margaret Coyne, in Breakingdown, Breakingthrough

  • "I mentioned that my chest ached, and he began pressuring it on my request. The physical struggle to get born was beginning to be felt. But, his hand pressure was not enough for me to really connect to the feeling. I needed still more chest pressure, so he lay on top of me, his chest on mine, and used the full weight of his body to maximize the pressure. My wanting to get out -- to get born, then felt even more intense and imperative."
    --John A. Speyrer, in Four Therapy Experiences at the 1999 Int. Primal Assn. Convention

    7. Nausea or Abdominal Distress.

  • "At around 11.00 pm. got a violent bout of nausea which totally immobilised me for a while. When I recovered I tried to organise myself for bed but was too depressed to do anything. Cried really hard for about fifteen minutes, then eventually went to bed..."
    --Margaret Coyne, in Breakingdown, Breakingthrough,, 10th workshop

  • "The fourth case was of a man who suffered from migraine headaches with nausea. When the patient allowed himself to relive his birth feelings in primals the migraine headaches resolved themselves between ten and fifteen minutes. The number of migraine headaches he had after therapy were greatly reduced and when he has an attack he is able to resolve it quickly."
    --E. Michael Holden, M.D., in Primal Pathophysiology

    8. Feeling Dizzy, Unsteady, Lightheaded or Faint.

  • "The patient then experienced himself as regressing to being a terrified baby, crying and screaming and feeling he was falling backwards. He reported dizziness and disorientation. His legs went up on to the wall until he was nearly upsidedown. This man reports his certainty that the primal had to do with his being held upside down right after he was born."
    --Hal Geddes, M.S.W., in The Art of Primal Midwifery

  • "At the same time, I was also feeling dizzy and nauseated by my mother's anesthesia. The therapy session had taken place almost 40 years after my birth but I could still smell the anesthesia !"
    --G.M. Streaming Life Energy: A Positive Birthing Experience

    9. Feelings of "Unreality" or Being Detached From Oneself.

  • "I can feel, that still, my pattern is very much controlled by my birth. I felt like I was alone, in this dead chunk of meat, having to fight my way out. Whenever I get in a stress situation, even if there are people around helping me, I don't even see them. I'm somehow back in that place where I'm alone. . . it has to be my struggle, and if I'm going to survive, I've got to do it. There's no one there to help me."
    -- On Being Born: A Mother's View - Denver Primal Journal Discussion

  • (The patient) "reported dizziness and disorientation."
    --Hal Geddes, M.S.W., in The Art of Primal Midwifery

    10. Fear of Losing Control or Going Crazy.

  • (One stage), "(w)hile reliving the onset of biological birth . . . characteristic for this state is a sense of dying, going crazy, and never coming back."
    -- Stanislav Grof, M.D., in Psychology of the Future p. 42, quoted in, Return to the Mothership by John A. Speyrer

  • "I swam under water a lot, seeing how far I could go without coming up for air. After I finally came up for air I began having an anxiety attack with the odd feeling that I was going crazy....That night, alone in bed, I began to have that feeling of going crazy again.... I sank into the feeling, letting it sweep me away. I began having a birth Primal, choking and losing my breath until I must have been purple in the face."
    -- Dr. Arthur Janov, The Feeling Child, p. 168-9 - quoted in, Phobias As Persistent Remainders and Reminders of the Traumas of Our Births by John A. Speyrer

    11. Fear of Dying.

  • "During the deepest primals, a feeling of fear of dying in the birth process was sometimes immediately followed by a feeling of wanting to die in order to stop the mental and physical suffering, and occasionally by an incredibly intense dread that I would not be able to die during the birth process, but would rather continue to suffer without end the anguish of my birth pain."
    -- John A. Speyrer, in, On the Fear of Death: Dying in the Birth Canal

  • "Birth and death are interchangeable terms. Of life after death we cannot be certain, but we know that we lived before birth in the pre-natal state. The change-over from pre-natal to post-natal life involves an ordeal as severe as dying. Hence the fear of death begins at birth. . . ."
    -- Nandor Fodor, in Quotations from, The Search For the Beloved

    12. Numbness or Tingling Sensations.

  • (Some subjects) ". . . became hot and sweaty, experienced numbness or shivering."
    -- Stephen Khamsi, Ph.D., in Birth Feelings: A Phenomenological Investigation

  • "A short time later I become aware that my hands are curling inwards and are being slowly drawn upwards towards my chest. Numbness sets in all over my body. Then it all begins to happen. I let go this long drawn-out scream which seems to come up from the lowest depth of my being."
    -- Margaret Coyne, in Breakingdown, Breakingthough

    13. Chills or Hot Flushes.

  • "The typical physical symptoms accompanying various psychopathological manifestations can be very logically derived from the birth experience (belt headache, difficulties in breathing, various cardiac complaints, nausea and vomiting, muscular tension and twitches, hot flashes and chills, sweating, and constipation or diarrhea."
    -- Stanislav Grof, M.D., in Birth Trauma and Its Relation to Mental Illness, Suicide and Ecstasy

  • "Some complain of the heat and experience the birth as an unbearable stuffiness. 'I am frightened of heat and of sex and of rage. They are all down here. I shall explode.' On the other hand, after a severe labour in which shock has occurred, there is intense experience of cold."
    -- Frank Lake, M.D., in Birth Trauma, Claustrophobia and LSD Therapy

    * * *

    Margaret Coyne in Breaking Down, Breaking Through, describes her body's attempt at resolving her birth trauma even before she entered therapy:

    I'd be lying on my back when suddenly, for no reason, my body would start to move and I would begin to scream. Usually I would end up, still on my back, with my head hanging over the edge of the bed, choking and spitting and frantically trying to free myself from some imaginary restraint.

    Towards the end of '94 I began to feel an overwhelming need to explore my strange behaviour which had by then become an almost everyday occurrence. It had not only begun to take over my life, it also at times threatened my very sanity and I knew that the only way l was going to stop this terror was to face it head-on in a safe and loving environment.

    * * *

    Another who began reliving his traumatic birth, on his own, was Dr. E. Michael Holden, Medical Director of the (original) Primal Institute. On an audio tape, he says - "It seemed that just reading the book, The Primal Scream, opened me up terrifically, because I started to spontaneously primal on my own, and in February of 1974, I had a completed birth primal in my bed, coming out of a nightmare about a baby drowning and it was then that I went through a sequence, wide awake, my body was writhing in S turns in a fashion you only see in lizards, chameleons, snakes and fish." (E. Michael Holden, M.D., Spiritual and Primal Experiences - Audio Tape

    * * *

    Because of the close similarity of the multiple traumatic events which took place both before and during our births, to the symptoms of panic/anxiety attacks, it seems reasonable to conclude that such attacks are the products of unprocessed and therefore unresolved predecessor experiences.

    What cinches this conclusion is that the reliving of these traumatic events in regressive type therapies will cure these panic/anxiety attacks.

    Read my recounting when two of my incomplete birth regressions changed into panic/anxiety attacks: The Aftereffects of Two Uncompleted Primal Sessions.

    Read the story of one man's curing his panic attacks: Finding a Place to Cry: My Path into Primal by Norm Cohen.

    Dr. Arthur Janov, the discoverer of primal therapy, recently wrote that he believes that the symptoms of depression which one suffers is related to the characteristics of one's birth trauma. He writes in his blog that "(i)f we were to overlay a transparency of the characteristics of depression on the effects of the birth trauma we would find that they match perfectly. Everything a person felt during the birth trauma back then is also a description of her current depression." - from, About the Act-Out, May 17, 2010.

    1Note: According to psychiatrist, Frank Lake, "In some there is no actual death-wish, but a kind of orgy of morbid, necrophilic fore-pleasure. This is also true of schizoid personalities who experience kicks and thrills by driving themselves as nearly as possible to death. A certain theological student did this frequently by various methods liable to cause asphyxiation. Another patient, as a child in an orphanage, crept out of bed to sit on a fire escape in the icy rain in a nightdress, excitedly longing for death. In others, particularly perhaps the poets and the philosophers, death-wishes are frequently put into words, but when there is any actual prospect of dying a profound revulsion sets in. This was certainly true of Erasmus, Montaigne, William Cowper, Schopenhauer, and of many others." Frank Lake, M.D., Clinical Theology, p. 835.

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