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PTSD, panic attacks and me

Posted: November 10th, 2017 | Columns, Community Voices, Featured, Life Beyond Therapy | 2 Comments

By Michael Kimmel | Life Beyond Therapy

When clients ask me, “Why did you become a therapist?” My usual answer is, “If you knew my childhood history, you’d understand.”

And I’m not alone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 5 Americans have been sexually molested as a child; 1 in 4 have been beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and 1 in 3 couples engage in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and 1 in 8 have witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.

Over the past two decades, I have helped hundreds of clients cope with the feelings of panic, anxiety, worry and dread that often result from a history of trauma. People tell me that I’m rather good at it. It’s probably related to my own history of panic attacks, which started in my teenage years.

I rarely have panic attacks anymore, so I was surprised to find myself in the middle of one this week. I woke up in the middle of the night unable to stop shivering (it wasn’t cold), my body was rigid and my mind full of fear. Yep, it was my old “friend,” Mr. Panic Attack.

Luckily, I knew what to do — how to sooth and assure myself that it would pass (which it did), and not mistake it for a heart attack or some other physical problem, which a panic attack can sometime mimic.

In hindsight, I could see how a difficult experience I had earlier the same day had “triggered” the panic attack, but I was still surprised. I knew that I was going through something unpleasant, but didn’t think it was a big deal.

My body and mind, however, had a different reaction; they panicked.

It’s ironic that, as a psychotherapist, it’s good for me to have these “experiences” because it makes me a better therapist – certainly a more “real” one! However, as a person, it’s not much fun.

So I went back to a book that I find as a great resource: “The Body Keeps the Score” by trauma specialist Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk — and as a result — was inspired to write this column.

I’d like to share some tips on how to begin to heal from trauma, aka post traumatic stress disorder, or simply PTSD.

In light of the recent Twitter phenomenon of the #MeToo hashtag, it’s clear that many of us are survivors of sexual abuse, harassment or rape.

In a way, it’s good that it’s all coming out: People in power have taken advantage of those with less power for centuries, and those of us who have been abused/harassed/raped/traumatized have been closeted for too long.

While it sure is good to come out of this closet, it can be very uncomfortable to work through traumatic experiences and come out the other side. But, it’s doable. I know, I have done it myself and help my clients do it, too.

PTSD-related stuff can creep into your life in a way you may not anticipate. I used to be surprised when I experienced road rage, until I realized that not being able to express my anger (at being traumatized) in my childhood resulted in my expressing it at unexpected times as an adult.

My reactions to other unskilled drivers’ behavior were often extreme and I couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that it was my body acting out those trauma-related emotions from my past.

Neuroscience shows us that trauma isn’t just something that happens to us, it’s an “imprint” left by that experience that physically alters our mind, brain and body. Talk-therapy alone rarely alters the body’s responses that make us hyper-vigilant.

For real change to take place, the body needs to physically experience that the danger has passed and we’re (finally) safe.

Here are three ways to begin that process:

Psychotherapy modalities that focus on the mind-body connection – like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and bioenergetics — can bring about powerful changes in how your body responds in difficult situations.

Healthy, ongoing relationships (friendships or romance) can be very reparative: We can slowly release the brain patterns that say people are “unsafe” as we learn to trust in and be vulnerable to people who are worthy of our trust.

Yoga, rolfing, reiki, therapeutic massage and other types of bodywork help to calm our nervous system so that we can release the physical sensations of past trauma.

Michael Kimmel

While these are just three ways to begin to calm your mind/brain/body; there are many others. If you have experienced trauma in your past, please take action to break the pattern of fear, hyper-vigilance and acting out. You can do it.

I did.

— Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.

2 Comments

  1. Warren says:

    Thank you for this post. Recently within the last year or so I have had really bad anxiety attacks and not sure where they came from or what caused it. But my last relationship was a hard one to get over at times and still is, I liked your suggestions on causing the nervous system.

  2. Warren:

    You’re welcome. I’ve gotten a few emails from people who, like you, are dealing with the repercussions of (past) trauma. The good news is that you can begin to work it through so it doesn’t continue to “haunt” you.

    As I mention in the column, there are 3 good ways to begin working through your panic/anxiety. And, of course, there are many others.

    Please take action and begin to free yourself. It can be done – I know, I’ve done it!

    Peace and fire,
    Michael

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