Can’t sleep. Can’t write. My head spins, my heart pounds, my thoughts race, my tummy churns. I sweat, I pant, I pace, I hide in my bed. Everything feels like doom. What can I do?
Panic attacks wreak havoc on those who suffer them, both cats and humans alike. In my 20 years of practice as a psychologist, I have almost invariably found that severe anxiety is related to anger, particularly anger that is not acknowledged and unexpressed. The anger often stems from early childhood and becomes displaced onto adult relationships. Exploring the roots of anger can be quite useful in addressing panic symptoms.
Common sources of panic-related anger
- Childhood abuse in all forms. Passive-aggressive abuse which is readily denied by the abuser becomes especially toxic over time.
- Parental withdrawal or withholding of love, attention and affection.
- Spouse abuse, especially identifying the target as having “mental-health” problems.
- Threat of abandonment in childhood or adulthood.
- Feeling trapped, powerless, inadequate or dependent on the abusers.
Many clients tell me, “But I have no anger at my parents, spouse, friends. Sure, I got beaten with a belt and demeaned in public, but nobody is perfect; no real harm was done.” Some clients drop out of therapy before they start to get in touch with their anger. The ones who stay often become gradually more aware of the abusive behavior in their lives, particularly the ongoing abuse in their current lives.
Gradually, as their righteous anger comes forward, their anxiety (and their depressive symptoms) start to dissipate. Of course, they may intensify at times, but usually recede shortly thereafter.
Strategies to Identify Anger
- Speak to your Anger.
After breathing deeply for a couple of minutes, imagine your anxiety as a part of you. Note where it resides in your body, related thoughts, images and other feelings. Ask your anxiety, “What purpose do you serve?” and listen mindfully.
In the midst of a mild panic attack and migraine headache at work, I took a break and went for a nice walk. I asked myself, “What is going on?” Immediately, I saw an image of a tiny kitten meowing in distress. It couldn’t talk, but I sensed the idea of “too much work.” I acknowledged this, and resolved to leave work on time, and submit a request for a day off. I felt considerable relief after this. Then I started to rationalize that I was doing well, I could work late and forget the day off. Immediately, the panic and migraine resumed. Taking the hint, I left work on time after submitting my request for a day off.
- Draw your Anger.
Using water colors, crayons, markers or other creative media you used in childhood, create an image of your anxiety. After completing it, look at it from several vantage points.
When I was in spiritual direction years ago, I drew a marker drawing of my anger – just this disturbing mass of black and red. My spiritual director turned it upside down and noticed a prominent image of a woman kneeling in distress – next to her little cat. That opened the door for some real discussion on unresolved grief, the need for spiritual practice, and the need for connection.
- Move your Anger.
Power walking, running, racquetball, golf, hitting a baseball are just a few ways to discharge anger. I have often watched my two cats raging and chasing one another one moment, then calmly playing and cuddling with each other the next. There is a good lesson here.
As PurSneakity the cat asks what can be done about his panic attacks, remember this. Where there is anxiety, anger is usually around the corner. Then look around the corner, and find the anger, and work your way to finding relief.
Image is under license from Shutterstock.