Somatic experiencing and panic attacks
Every year, about three million adults in the United States will experience a panic disorder. Those that do might avoid people and public areas in fear of an onset of a panic attack given the unexpected nature of the attacks. Although spontaneous, there are tools to manage the invasion of panic attacks. One way is through mindfulness. Mindfulness somatic therapy practices coupled with mindfulness meditation can help ease the aftershocks of a panic attack and lessen its severity. Learn how a body scan meditation can help you.
Panic Disorders and Panic Attacks
Panic attacks involve sudden intense fear and anxiety, as well as a sense of loss of control, in response to a perceived threat. When they happen frequently it is a panic disorder (PD).
The symptoms of panic attack include:
Feeling of dying
Feeling of having a heart attack
Fear of having lost sanity
Loss of control
Trembling or shaking
Dizziness or faintness
Tightness in throat
Shortness of breath
Most panic attacks last up to ten minutes, peaking within the first minutes. The attack can be draining, leaving people exhausted and in fear of more attacks occurring.
Mindfulness Somatic Therapy: What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the act of bringing attention to the present moment. It is becoming self-aware. And truly tuning into what is going on within and around us. For example, noticing that we are clenching our jaw while birds chirp in the distance. Mindfulness is something we already do–exist in the moment. However, many of us are distracted by the external, the past, and the future. Noticing bodily sensations, acknowledging one’s own feelings, and accepting one’s own thoughts can aid in getting you to the present.
Strategies To Get To The Present
Pulling up an instruction manual to ride out a panic attack may not be practical in the midst of an intense attack, but practicing these coping skills regularly may make them a second nature response to one.
When a panic attack strikes, you can briefly sway from side-to-side, let your breath and spine flow in waves, or lift your heels and release them to anchor yourself back into your body. Once you have let go of some of the stress in your body and have diverted from an anxious state of mind, you can begin a body scan meditation. Quieting the mind through body scan meditation is a mindfulness practice that can center you and keep you in the present. And it offers a perk, manifesting in feelings of gratitude and appreciation when you experience yourself in your body at that very moment.
What to do
Find a place to sit. Close your eyes and sink into your body while maintaining an upright spine that supports you, as if golden threads are holding you up from above. Make an effort to notice the sounds and smells around you. Observe how your breath goes in and out of your body, without feeling the need to change it. Then take note of what you are sensing in your body.
Starting from the top of your head, scan your body, section by section. Pay attention to fine details such as curves, sockets, holes, hair, shapes of body parts, and the like. Check in with yourself to acknowledge any sensations you have going on in your body or any tension you are holding. See if you can find a quiet or more comfortable spot in your body. If there is tension, accept it and attempt to release it by focusing on relaxing that part of your body. For example, you may realize that your eyebrows are scrunched, your fists are tightened, or your neck and shoulders are clenched. Not only will this let you drop into the present moment but it will create space for your muscles, resulting in less pain.
Once you are through examining your entire body, do a quick inventory of how you and your body are feeling. Sit still without an agenda and without trying to control anything for a few minutes. See if with a dual awareness you can hold onto the internal calmness as you slowly take a few deep breaths and open your eyes into the present moment. This practice can keep you from spiraling into negativity during and after an attack. And it can promote overall well being in the long run. Practiced daily, whether you have 5 minutes or 55 minutes, these types of mindfulness somatic therapy or practices can teach your body how to find the “calm,” and be able to return there in times of distress.
For more information about Trauma based resources please contact Trauma and Beyond Center ® at (818) 651-0725 or visit us at traumaandbeyondcenter.com.
“I don’t know why, but every time I start dating someone new, I lose interest after three or four dates—even if they are really cool.”
“This time of year just makes me miserable. I don’t know what it is, but it makes me drink more just to be able to stand it.”
“I’m so discouraged by these panic attacks. I never know when they’re going to hit. They’re ruining my life.”
“I’m 30 years old, and I haven’t ever seriously dated anyone because of my social anxiety. It just gets in the way, all the time.”
These are a few of the typical complaints I hear when I meet with someone for the first time. These problems all sound pretty different, don’t they? Chances are, however, that they share an underlying process. We can credit Dr. Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, for clarifying this process for us. His life’s work synthesizes vast amounts of research, therapy practices, and worldwide cultural traditions with his own original contributions.
Dr. Levine calls this underlying process “over-coupling.” Over-coupling takes place when trauma energy sticks two things together that shouldn’t be. Our brain perceives some stimulus, one that could be innocuous to others, and then has this lightning quick reaction based on its learned history: “If there’s this, there’s also going to be that—and that is really bad, so let’s rev up the fight or flight energy!”
How Over-Coupling Works
Over-coupling involves the parts of the brain known as the limbic system, or our emotional/threat response, and the reptilian brain, which is in charge of body regulation. When these systems perceive a potential threat, they go into a stress response. Trauma can occur when that threat feels overwhelming or bigger than our ability to effectively cope with it, and the energy from that stress response gets stuck in our systems, under the surface. The unconscious layers of the brain and body want to avoid any situation like that ever happening again. So when something feels similar to the big, bad thing that happened in the past, our reptile brains lock into the same threat response as the previous time. This happens whether or not the logical mind is aware of any similarity between the previous and current situations.
That is over-coupling. Like a creaky old suit of armor, it’s meant to protect us, but what it really does is get in our way, preventing us from freely living our lives.
When our limbic, or emotional/threat response, and reptile, or body regulation brains perceive a potential threat, they go into a stress response … The unconscious layers of the brain and body want to avoid any situation like that ever happening again.
Let’s explore the above examples with this new awareness of over-coupling.
- In the first example, a new love interest equals a threat. This could be rooted in the emotional damage caused by an old love interest or parent, both of which might cause the body and attachment system to shut down. This dynamic is usually at the core of avoidant attachment.
- Different seasons of the year come with certain environmental cues that remind us of an original difficult period or event in our lives. The angle of the sunlight, the feeling in the air, the temperature, and the way the plants look and smell might all act as subconscious cues. These cues may or may not stir up anxiety or panic; many people simply feel malaise and dread around over-coupled times of the year. Grief anniversaries are one example. Alcohol is one strategy frequently used to turn off these feelings, even if it only works for a brief time. However, as a central nervous system depressant, it can often worsen problems with mood.
- Panic attacks become less of a mystery once these subconscious coupling dynamics are understood. Panic attacks are essentially the body’s emergency alarms going off at the wrong time: “This is not a drill! We’re going to die, right now!” They consist of a lot of flight, or sympathetic nervous system, energy coursing through the system all at once. The body is mobilizing to get out immediately because it thinks it’s going to die. Many people try to repress panic attacks, but this can be like holding a lid on a pot insistent on boiling over. Somatic therapy has developed many alternate ways to work with panic that essentially turn off the figurative stove, allowing the water to cool and settle.
- Social anxiety occurs when the threat response system is convinced, from previous felt experience, that a social environment is going to cause emotional or social harm. This can happen whether or not the current social environment is similar to the one that caused damage. Social anxiety comes with varying levels of conscious acceptance of the message the limbic and reptile brains are sending. When there’s more conscious acceptance of the belief, “I’m no good/not desirable,” it often carries a developmental aspect. Here, the person’s compromised self-esteem may reinforce the over-coupling message. Regardless, the subconscious mind is convinced the social environment is not safe, and it often refuses to deactivate until the person gets away to be alone or with a few trusted others.
Since these conditions usually involve the body’s unconscious trauma energies, which can be tricky and powerful, treatment is best left to someone with specific training in this area. Personally, I will always be grateful for my own continued training in somatic psychotherapy and for Peter’s contributions in the area of coupling dynamics.
In a future article, we will examine under-coupling, which occurs when something feels so overwhelming that the body numbs it out. Under-coupling is even more tricky, as it usually takes place beneath the level of the person’s conscious awareness and shares a special relationship with over-coupling. In the meantime, I invite you to start having compassion for any over-coupling you might notice going on in your own system. As frustrating as it might be, it is trying to protect you!
- Levine, P. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Practitioner training manual. (2007). Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute/Foundation for Human Enrichment: Boulder, CO: Foundation for Human Enrichment.
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