Apr 20, 2008
For panic which has a primarily psychological basis -as opposed to a profound physical disorder, we are accustomed to hearing and reading that once you "get to the root" and discover the "root," or cause of the panic, recovery may be close at hand. That idea, I believe, is essentially correct but there are also some possible pit-falls.
First of all, while there may a "root," a single cause or profound experience somewhere "back there" in your life, it is more likely that a deeply rooted panic mechanism is the result of a series of events which, over time, have caused us to be poorly adapted to emotional and psychological challenges. And so, the "search" for a cause is really more about learning about why we are the way we are with many aspects of life, and especially, relationships. Most of the development is hidden from us; there are seldom memories of anything remarkable. And if there are one or more profound experience which are very prominent in our recollections, they may BE profound because of prior development.
Many of us are confused at the notion of early experiences playing a substantial role in our adult emotional life, and would describe our childhood as "normal." But of course we would! As children, we have nothing to compare our experience against -no prior experience, no model of what is "right." Furthermore, what is "right" for one child may be very troubling to another. And so, we regard our own early lives as normal simply because our life -from day one- is really the only one we know.
Furthermore, it must be appreciated that the earliest events in a young life loom large from the point of view of a child, again because there is no basis of comparison for the child to evaluate their own experiences. And so, what we as adults think of as being trivial is characterized as such because we -as adults- have a wealth of experience, a context, in which to place the event. Example: if a picnic I'm eagerly looking forward to is washed out because of bad weather I am disappointed, but not horribly conflicted. As a child, however, the denial of my expectancy of a good time may be quite devastating -it looms large, psychologically.
Children, of course, are "all about themselves." Especially in very early years, they are all about their own needs. How can they NOT be? When they hunger, mother's breast is nearby, when they are frightened, a loving adult protects them - you know what I'm talking about. The bottom line is that "delayed gratification" or the needs of others are completely alien concepts to youngsters, as they indeed can only be. Of course, in time, children mimic the actions of the significant adults in their lives. I can recall how, as a child, I observed my father launching into fits of anger when something went wrong in a construction project he was undertaking. He may not even have been aware that I was observing him. In time, he would successfully complete his project. Now, I ask you, how do you think I am -when I split a piece of trim for a cabinet?
That little example has a neat, one-to-one relationship between "cause and effect." Other adaptations to not getting what we need and want are more subtle. But, by the same token that I am given to a useless fit of temper with a peice of wood that is not cooperating with me, so also have I incorporated unproductive and even self-defeating behavior with PEOPLE. People, however, are more complex than pieces of wood, so their responses are not as easily understood by a mind which has only been around for a few years. What I can say is that the collective effect of my adaptations, while it may have "worked" in childhood, no longer worked as an adult, although I continued to use it, because it is what I had learned as a tool to get what I needed and wanted as a child.
It is this "not working" which eventually results in anxiety, and then panic, because we have a sense that "something is wrong." In my case, the onset was early and took the form of very abstract fears of death, a theme which reared its ugly head again and again throughout my life and then emerged whenever I might be "annihilated" by something in life. Therapy, at last, disclosed this to me.
What must be understood and appreciated is that the adults who care for us ALSO carry their own luggage, the burden of which is often an influence in how they treat the youngsters they love and care for. And even in the rare case of the adult who has no such burden, there is no guarantee that they'll get it right regarding the development of their own children.
One might wonder how, given the seemingly uncontrolled and certainly unpredictable nature of child-rearing, everyone doesn't have panic. And I would hold out to you that (genetic factors aside) more people than we might imagine at first DO have it and EVERYONE, if you set the conditions properly, WOULD have it. Our psychological traits are the result of many competing influences over time, plus our inherited tendencies. All of these combine to have a "vote" in how we are. For those of us who experience panic frequently, the "votes" make us susceptible.
And given the complexity of our upbringing and early lives, it may seem at first that a therapeutic resolution is all but impossible. Yet, this is NOT the case at all. Despite our affliction, we deal with reality using an ADULT mind. And so, it takes only a few discoveries about our early lives to demonstrate why we are the way we are TODAY. Once we perceive the "fit" of "then" with "now," the brain can make adjustments for many departments of conflict -even the ones that are beyond our conscious awareness.
The key is therapy which allows us to discover important material about ourselves, and review it with our adult minds. We must be mindful that what happened to us back then may have been much more important at the time than similar experiences would seem today. There is no fault, no blame, and rarely a "smoking gun." The effectiveness of therapy has much to do with the effectiveness of the therapist, even though it is always WE who must do the work of fitting all the puzzle pieces together. The therapist is best understood as a "guide," who, like a good tracker, knows the territory and can call to our attention (on the basis of experience) to what we might otherwise overlook. Ultimately, it is WE who put the puzzle together.
And WHY should self-understanding change anything? That, perhaps, is the greatest miracle of all. The long and short is that most of us who have panic would rather NOT have panic. Understanding how it came to be enables us to change our perceptions, but at the bottom of it all, I believe, is self-acceptance -the only kind that really matters. In my own case, I believe I had taken on to myself the same critical view of ME that I believed OTHERS -especially parents, had of me. And this is something I had from a very early age. Whether they actually DID was of secondary importance; what was important was how I felt about me. Simply understanding that this was so enabled me to make other choices, see myself differently. Given that I did not WANT panic, I was well motivated to make changes to get rid of it. (And, by the way, I don't think any of those significant elders really DID have the same critical view of me that I did).
It is remarkable to me that most panic people come to the conclusion that there is really "nothing the matter." That is what makes panic such a tough customer. In fact, I believe that if we truly believed that "nothing" is the matter, we would never have had panic in the first place. It is the task of therapy to bring us to the place, as adults, that we understand that we are just fine, just the way we are.