In my practice, I often get people coming in describing the abrupt onset of a panic attack. This is a perfect description of what these escalated anxious episodes feel like for the sufferer: as if they are suddenly and relentlessly under attack from some unseen and sinister force. Their bodies and minds mysteriously feel as if they are no longer under their own control. It is a life altering state of mind and can truly debilitate the sufferer and, if left untreated, can lead to other complications such as alcoholism and drug addiction as the sufferer uses substances as a way to self medicate.
Coupled with the disabling body symptoms, obsessive scary thoughts, and overall mental demoralization, many people describe a sense of increasing alienation and shame with loved ones and close relationships as the panic disorder progresses. That is, those whove never had a panic attack sometimes find it challenging to relate and support the sufferer over long periods of time, especially when their support seems to have little impact on the condition of the sufferer. Another commonly seen complication is the fact that people with panic disorder often become extremely reliant, some times overly so, on loved ones to help them feel safe. This is especially true for those who are agoraphobic and avoid specific places and/or people to avoid feeling anxious. They form unhealthy dependencies on others perpetuating idea that something or someone outside of themselves can stave off a panic attack. Unfortunately, this type of thinking is misguided and counterproductive to true recovery.
In light of the ways panic and anxiety affect the whole person, including relationships, a key component in the beginning stages of treatment for anxiety and panic is to help my clients understand how to describe their condition to their loved ones and the nature of their condition. Seeking treatment for panic and anxiety can not only assist the sufferer, but ultimately, serve to preserve and better interpersonal relationships in unforeseen ways
By Samantha Wright Wakach, LCSW