When I was working as a psychologist, I saw an average of twenty clients a week. Over twenty years, I must have seen thousands of clients. Even so, some stories have stayed with me. Here is one about a client suffering panic attacks.
Chrissy, aged 28, came to see me because she felt increasingly anxious. She had always been a bit anxious, but it had never stopped her from getting on with her life. I considered this a normal level of anxiety. But over the last twelve months, her anxiety had developed into panic attacks.
Her father had committed suicide six years earlier. He’d been an unhappy, sensitive man who coped by using alcohol. Before this, he’d been a loving father to her. She said she coped with his suicide by believing he was at peace. She’d hated watching his emotional turmoil over the last couple of years before he died. Her mother had left him, and he never quite recovered from this experience of loss and rejection.
Like most people, she felt like she was dying during her panic attacks. Somehow, each time they hit, she managed to pull herself out of the fear and regain her composure. This wasn’t a satisfactory solution because, sooner or later, they always returned.
I use the technique of supported exposure to deal with panic attacks. I consider panic attacks to be a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some specific experience, perhaps too fleeting to be noticed, brings a past trauma suddenly and vividly to life.
Supported exposure gently takes the client back into the experience of panic, while letting her know she is safe and supported. Usually the client receives more information about the trauma by staying with the feelings of panic until they gradually subside.
I asked Chrissy to describe her panic attack and, within a few moments, she was back in it. I encouraged her to be brave and stay with her feelings, breathing slowly and deeply. She followed my instructions and soon started reporting her impressions.
She sensed the presence of her father. I accepted this as her truth and began to explore it. I asked if he knew he was dead. She felt a strong sense of confusion and fear.
I have many clients who have sensed the presence of the dead, especially those they had loved who have passed on. Their presence often stirs up feelings of confusion. I used the same technique with Chrissy as I had used with them, as it had always worked.
I suggested she tell her father he has died. He committed suicide many years ago thinking that would free him from pain, but the pain remains. This may sound counter-intuitive, especially if you believe death to be the end. But even though our body falls away, our soul-self continues. Chrissy’s father is clutching onto her because he does not know what else to do.
I explained this to her. “You love him, but his pain is too great for you to bear. It is time for him to go. Are you willing to let him go, Chrissy?”
Chrissy started crying. She admitted it was difficult to let him go. Since his death, she had been aware of his presence from time to time, especially if she felt down or alone. This had been a comfort to her.
I suggested it could be time to release him. Most probably, he had things to do on the other side and perhaps she needs to learn how to cope without him. I continued to reassure her, giving her time to weep quietly until she decided to let him go.
She suddenly saw a bright light, even though her eyes were closed. Then she said, “He’s gone.” She reported feeling calm.
As she opened her eyes, she explained that she now understood what had happened. He had attached to her after he died. She had never completely grieved her loss because she had never fully felt he’d gone. She wondered if he had sensed some need in her and hung around to help her cope.
It wasn’t only her father who’d felt lost. She had too. After five years with her, he wanted to leave, but every time he started to let go, she went into a panic. This took her back to the moment she learned of his suicide and all her feelings of helplessness. Now she realised she’d been hanging onto him, holding him back from getting on with his life on the other side. The tears she shed during the session expressed the loss she was finally feeling.
After this session, Chrissy had no more panic attacks and her anxiety subsided. She came to see me several times, building her inner strength and developing the confidence to cope as an adult in the world. As well, she soon felt connected to her spiritual guide who was there to help her.
Chrissy was one of the early clients I encountered who was hanging onto a deceased loved one. I have met many more since, on my journey as a healer, some when I was a psychologist and some as a spiritual practitioner. Not all involve panic attacks. There can be other symptoms, such as depression, sadness or feelings of helplessness. Some people know they are hanging onto a loved one but don’t know how to let go. Others, like Chrissy, don’t want to let go.
Panic attacks have many causes. They are all discoverable if the practitioner and the client are willing to explore deeply with an expansive view of what is possible.