Panic Attacks, Phobias, and Feelings

by John A. Speyrer

"It is unfortunate that modern concepts of psychosomatic illness sometimes lean more
to the study of the biochemical results of the repressed trauma to one's system
than to the repressed trauma itself."

A number of years ago a local newspaper printed a Washington Post news release which seemed to contain the most up-to-date information about anxiety attacks. Explaining that the anxiety and panic attacks were some of life's most terrifying experiences, the article described well its symptoms:

``You may feel dizzy or you may be aware of nausea. But it's more than just feeling sick. You have a sense that reality is slipping away from you...the feeling is that you're going to die. That you're going to lose your mind....Your heart is beating out of your chest....You can't catch your breath.''

The article mentioned that Dr. Donald F. Klein of the New York State Psychiatric Institute was considered to be one of the country's top specialists in the panic attack field. Dr. Klein was quoted as believing that because of anticipatory anxiety, the victim avoids any situations in which he or she has had previous attacks and thus may refuse to go out alone or may develop any number of terrifying phobias.

Another top specialist, Dr. David Sheehan, author of The Anxiety Disease, has made agoraphobia and panic attacks his province. During a recent lecture (Fall of 1993) in Baton Rouge, he mentioned that he has been treating these maladies with anti-depressant drugs such as tricyclics and MAO inhibitors and with tranquilizers (benzodiazepines) such as Xanax.

The article stated that clinical psychologists had been successfully treating the condition by using desensitization (behavioral therapy) techniques which are helpful after medication has suppressed the attacks. The article's author mentioned that research was seeking biochemical causes such as metabolic imbalances. Dr. Sheehan believes such imbalances are the culprit in this sickness and feels certain that anxiety attacks are an inherited vulnerability.

In that earlier-mentioned article, Dr. Sheehan stated that this problem strikes only a very small percentage of the population and seems to concentrate its fury on women rather than men. Seventy-five percent of its victims are young women, although all intelligence levels, racial groups and socio-economic levels are affected. Sheehan is hopeful that soon a diagnostic blood test will be developed along with new and more effective drugs. ``We're still at the early stages,'' said Sheehan, ``but it's only a matter of time before the big breakthrough.''

Well, twelve years after that first article was printed, we're still waiting for that big breakthrough. However, Dr. Sheehan is still hopeful. At a seminar in Baton Rouge in the fall of 1993, he was quoted as saying that there will soon exist ''... a predictive blood test to identify carriers before they develop the disease. He still believes that anxiety attacks are ''. . . a biological illness with a genetic predisposition -- like diabetes or asthma'' and that ``female sex hormones facilitate the expression of the disease.'' He implied that this is one reason why anxiety attacks are ``largely a disease of women during their childbearing years...'' At his seminar he also stressed that brain scans of those who suffer from anxiety attacks are very different from those of normal people.


Unfortunately, the facts provided by the purveyors of "information'' concerning anxiety diseases imply that it is something inherited. Feelings are hardly mentioned at all. It's all in your genes, they say. There appears to be no realization that there exists a common source to most physical and mental illness: the presence of unfelt or unintegrated very early trauma.

It is not surprising that people who are susceptible to anxiety attacks may have a different brain scan from "normal people.'' Nor is it surprising that their blood might contain substances which would identify them as people on the verge of having anxiety attacks. Those of us who believe in the effects of early trauma would expect that persons who have suffered severe traumas would be physiologically different from the "normal'' population. The repressed trauma is not a benign burden to have and one way it is revealed is it's victim's body chemistry.

Suspecting genetic or inherited vulnerability also hawks down the wrong trail, since vulnerability plays a role in all diseases, whether genetic or not. Usually one does not fall prey to a disease caused by a pathogen without having some degree of vulnerability. It's a fact that a person cannot develop tuberculosis without being exposed to TB bacteria. However, many in a population with the TB bacilli in their system do not develop the disease. There are other variables present, which determine whether a person actually contacts a pathogenic disease, such as the status of the immune system, proper nutrition, and naturally enough, inherited genetic vulnerability.

For many, vulnerability may be a sufficient but not a complete explanation as to why a person gets sick. For some who show a susceptible response to stress, the real pathogen is early repressed trauma. It is unfortunate that modern concepts of psychosomatic illness sometimes lean more to the study of the biochemical results of the repressed trauma to one's system than to the repressed trauma itself. Perhaps this is due to the frustration which many in the field feel because of their inability to help patients using psychological techniques alone.

To those of us knowledgeable about primal theory, anxiety is easily understood. We also know that these panic and anxiety attacks are readily curable. What happens to the genetic predisposition when the psychosomatic illness yields to re-experiencing or feeling the stored up trauma? The origins of anxiety attacks are actually no more puzzling than the origins of functional headaches, drug addiction, or depression. All originate in unfelt infantile and early childhood experiences.


I began suffering from anxiety attacks in my early twenties. The trigger was seemingly benign and inconsequential -- a woman whom I greatly admired did not wish to date me. This supposedly commonplace rejection resulted in a series of classic anxiety attacks. For the next two decades, my history repeated itself. Rejection by an attractive or particularly desirable woman would trigger the panic attacks.

And, seemingly contradictory, the acceptance of me by such a woman and entering into a relationship with her would sometimes also trigger the attacks! In such cases, the symptoms would intensify after I was accepted by her. So I suffered from the attacks when I would be rejected in my romantic pursuits and suffered as much or even more when I was able to have that relationship!

Between the attacks, as I entered my thirties and then my early forties, I became plagued by increasingly chronic anxiety and almost daily, unbearable stomach pains. The cat had been let out of its bag. Another ways of saying that is my psychological defenses had been lowered. Seeking relief from my sufferings, I tried every approach to better health I could find, including orthodox medicine, acupuncture, hypnosis, insight therapy and gestalt therapy/transactional analysis. Hypnosis had helped for awhile. But then I began dating again and all the benefits of hypnotherapy were erased!

In the last therapy in which I participated, during gestalt feeling exercises, evidence began to accumulate that somehow my mother had rejected me, but I had only conscious memories of love from her, so I could not and did not accept this conclusion. But, after six months of gestalt therapy, I had reached a point where the feeling exercises had opened me up enough so that, one day at home, reliving my early traumas began spontaneously.

With the regressions, the origin of my anxiety attacks became clear. I found out that the desirable women had always been symbolic mothers. Wishing to have a relationship with those women triggered the original painful need which I had experienced in infancy of wanting my mother's love and not feeling that I had received it. If I had been able to connect to those repressed feelings later in life, I would have experienced the regressions instead of the symptoms.

Accompanying the primal feelings were insights. In a few weeks after I began the primal process, I began having deep insights. My fear of marriage became clear to me. As an infant, that first most desirable woman had been my mother. By not getting her love I had been devastated with resultant feelings of rejection. Thus close relationships later in life with other desirable women triggered my early repressed feelings.

As these feelings became closer to consciousness, anxiety and nervous tension were the result. Even the casual contemplation of marriage could cause stomach pains to begin. Thus, sometimes, even considering the remote possibility of receiving love from a particular desirable woman triggered the repressed unconscious feelings of my needing my mother to like me.

In re-living those traumas of my infancy, I felt my mother's indifference and rejection and whenever I felt rejected by women in my adult relationships, those early feelings were brought closer to consciousness and were experienced as anxiety attacks.

I no longer experience panic attacks. After six months of feeling those repressed early hurts, my daily stomach pains were no longer a bothersome symptom and I was able to reduce my intake of valium from 10 mgs. per day to a very small fraction of that amount. Even though stomach pains are no longer a symptom, tension and puffiness in that area are a signal to me that it's primal-time again. After I have connected with the feeling, the stomach symptoms leave completely.

A new option had appeared. When I was discouraged by a desirable woman from pursuing the relationship I wanted, I experienced not anxiety attacks but primals instead!

Although those early feelings of maternal rejection did give shape and substance to my neurosis, its origins lay elsewhere. After eight months of feeling the early pain of such rejection, I began the inexorable re-living of my most difficult birth which I consider to be the actual source of my neurosis. The birth primals continue to this day, almost three decades after they began!

I recently read these telling words which refer to severe psychological symptoms of very early (intrauterine) origin being triggered when the memories relate to present-day hurts or needs and become unrepressed during "...some childhood, adolescent or adult crisis of miserable failure or rejection." [(my emphasis) (Frank Lake, M.D. Mutual Caring, Edited by Stephen Maret, Ph.D., (2009) p. 76 - original edition (1982)]

Dr. Lake in an earlier work wrote about the fear of commitment:

A Schizoid Phobia of Commitment

When a young man, otherwise in perfect health, is contemplat­ing the bonds of holy matrimony, he may find himself in the grip of a schizoid commitment-phobia which drives him back into bachelordom with a recoil of terror. He is answering the question `Who am I?' in terms of the most impressive experience of his life history. The fact that this experience certainly occurred before his first birthday, and probably before he was six months old, does not alter this assertion. He is saying, `I am, still, the person who learned by experience that to commit oneself to a bonded relationship with a woman is to invite disaster. I am the one whose utmost longing was worthless. I am the one who could not, even in agony of dereliction, persuade my mother to come until it was too late to prevent the destruction of myself and my whole world of trustful personal relationships. I am, therefore, not the committing sort, not the marrying sort. I am the lone wolf, the cool cat. I am the one who finds safety only in solitary non-commitment.'

When this young man looks at his half-intended wife-to-be he does not really look at her as she is, nor at himself as one whom she has seen and chosen. He sees in her all the potentialities for destructiveness which, all unwittingly, resided in his mother's technique of infant management, or the agonies of his birth. [Frank Lake, M.D. in Clinical Psychology (1966), p. 505.]

See my more recent article, Panic Attacks: Symptoms & Dangers - Their Origins in Early Traumas which provides evidence that panic and anxiety attacks are ultimately derived from birth trauma, although, as in my case described above, lesser traumas may trigger their release. The article was written 35 (thirty-five) years after this article.


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