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The lifesaving ingenuity of panic and terror

August 23, 2013

Welcoming and understanding panic and terror

As we travel through the emotional realm, we’ve looked at anger, guilt & shame, apathy, hatred, fear, confusion, anxiety, and jealousy & envy, and we’ve found the gifts in each one. Every emotion carries gifts, and every emotion evolved over millions of years to help us survive and thrive as social primates. Panic and terror are no different (from now on, I’ll primarily use the word panic to stand in for both emotions in this post).

Panic is an intense emotion that arises in response to a direct threat to your physical life. Panic is related to fear, but while fear is an instinctual and intuitive emotion that arises in response to change, novelty, and possible physical hazards, panic arises when you actually need to save your own life.

The ingenious actions you can take in response to your fear number in the thousands, but with panic, there are only three responses necessary: Fight, Flee, or Freeze. And if you can drop into your instincts and listen to your body, your panic will choose the right response pretty much every time.

Panic is what I call a “raging rapids” emotion, and it’s a doozy, but it has to be! Panic arises when your physical life is in actual danger. It is powerful because its power is required.

However, as we all know, powerful panic responses can lead to trouble, and to what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. In the aftermath of dangerous or shocking events, people can sort of get trapped in the panic response and lose their sense of peace and stability. But this doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with panic. Panic is necessary even though it can get stuck in a feedback loop. The key to unsticking panic is to know what it’s doing, and why.

You need panic. Panic is crucial for your survival. But when it gets out of kilter even a little bit, it can be too much. Here are some ideas from The Language of Emotions for what you can do if your panic is out of sorts.

Panic & Terror: Frozen Fire

GIFTS: Sudden energy ~ Fixed attention ~ Absolute stillness ~ Healing from trauma

ACTION REQUIRED: Panic and terror arise when your physical life is directly and immediately threatened. You have three choices: Fight, flee, or freeze.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS (during the emergency): Just listen to your body – don’t think, just react. Your instinctual body is a survival expert, and it will keep you safe.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS (for PTSD): What has been frozen in time? What healing action must be taken? In cases of PTSD, the somatic work of Peter Levine is invaluable.

From the Panic and Terror chapter in The Language of Emotions

Book cover of The Language of EmotionsWe’re all aware of our fight-or-flight responses to danger; these two panic- and terror-based responses can protect us from harm, but there is another response that isn’t as well known – it’s called freezing.

In many dangerous or traumatizing situations, fighting and fleeing aren’t our best survival options, because we may not be strong enough or fast enough to avoid danger. If our healthy panic and terror can help us freeze and dissociate (or go into shock or numbness) in response to extreme danger, we can often survive the unsurvivable.

Freezing is a brilliant option in many situations, because it can dull our senses to excruciating pain, protect us from overwhelming stimuli, and present a corpse-like demeanor to our attackers, who may become less interested in the attack when we exhibit no emotion and make no sound or movement (this is a possum’s life-saving strategy, and it works!).

However, in the aftermath of panic and terror, there’s so much activation that it’s hard to revisit, renegotiate, and integrate the situation, as all fears ask us to do. It’s especially difficult if your terror made you freeze, because people often equate freezing with cowardice.

Our deeply distorted relationship to fear makes our lives very difficult indeed, but it makes the lives (and the healing) of those who have experienced panic even harder. If you don’t understand fear, you won’t have access to your instincts, focus, or intuition – which means you won’t have the capacity to work constructively with the sudden actions panic and terror compel you to make.

If you don’t understand the purpose of panic, you may scorn your own and other people’s freezing behaviors, which means you won’t be able to view panic and terror with any useful insight. Understanding the message of fear is imperative; please take time to understand fear.

When I observe panic and terror empathically, I sense a brilliance that connects us back through time and underneath our cultural conditioning to our most ingenious survival instincts. However, I also know that people who are destabilized by panic attacks are dealing with a paralyzing and debilitating condition – and that anti-anxiety medications and beta blockers can truly help them.

Unrelieved panic and terror can destabilize your endocrine system, your sleep cycles, your appetite, and your equilibrium. If you’re dealing with PTSD, certainly get thee to a doctor and get some help so that you can calm your body and your mind.

And at this point, let me point out that panic-inducing traumas aren’t restricted to serious assaults, combat injuries, or criminal acts. Traumas routinely arise from such mundane events as witnessing accidents or violence, from standard medical or dental procedures, or even from being emotionally assaulted by the everyday name-calling, prejudice, over-stimulation, or isolation we all endure.

If you experience panic attacks, but you cannot track them back to anything you’d call a trauma, please look again. We are trained to dishonor, ignore, and dissociate from our thoughts, our emotions, our dreams, and even our physical sensations. If you’re a sensitive soul and you’ve become dissociated in response to this unhelpful training, you may need to revisit each situation where you felt traumatized or dissociated so that you can reintegrate yourself, add to your skill-set, and come fully back to life.

Don’t make the mistake of relegating trauma or panic responses to the territory of violent crime or gory car crashes. You’re a sensitive and unique organism, which means you’ll respond to startling and overwhelming input in your own unique way.

If your panic has helped you to freeze or zone out so that you could survive a terrorizing or dissociating situation, you will need to revisit that trauma in order to scrutinize and integrate the experience. Unfortunately, if you don’t understand panic and the brilliant survival skills of freezing and dissociation, you can easily plummet into an unhealthy relationship with freezing behaviors and experience panic attacks that can literally immobilize you.

However, if you can understand that your sudden lack of movement and consciousness actually ensured your survival (you’re alive, right?) during the endangering situation, you can bring your full awareness to your panic cycles. If you can learn to see the act of freezing as the genius-level response it is, you can re-enter that frozen state with vigor and courage, restore your flow, and retrieve your resilience.

If you need support in dealing with panic cycles that stem from trauma, please see the work of Peter Levine, PhD. He’s a psychologist and medical biophysicist who has studied trauma and stress for over three decades. His books, CDs, and videos walk you step-by-step through trauma-relieving processes that are empowering, integrating, and fun.

The messages in panic and terror

Danger is a fact of life. Trees fall, dentistry happens, stressors occur, cars veer, people yell and hit, and molesters prowl; danger is everywhere. The issue is not in the danger or in the panic and possible dissociation we experience in response to it, but in the fact that we don’t have the resilience to reintegrate ourselves or regain our equilibrium once that danger has passed.

Restoring our resilience is the key to reintegrating ourselves after traumatic incidents – but that task can seem daunting when rapids-level panic and terror are involved. Panic and terror can be debilitating, but they have something in common with every other emotion we have: They contain the precise amount of energy needed in the situation that called them forward – no more, and no less. Your emotions don’t fill you with enormous amounts of energy for no reason!  There are no negative emotions!

When your terror and panic are activated in response to trauma, they move forward to help you in case you have the chance to fight or flee at any time during your ordeal, to help you freeze, to release heightened amounts of pain-killing endorphins so you’ll be more likely to survive any injury, and to help you dissociate if necessary. All this preparation takes a great deal of energy – which panic certainly contains.

After the trauma has passed, your panic will retreat, but it won’t disappear completely. Like fear, panic will stay activated in order to give you the energy you need to reintegrate yourself, shake and tremble all over, and replay your trauma in any number of ways. If you don’t take advantage of this cool-down period, you’ll remain in a hyperactivated state, and your panic will have to remain activated, because the trauma won’t truly be over.

This hyperactivation often cycles you into panic attacks, which also contain a great deal of energy. This energy doesn’t exist to torment you, but to help you navigate through your flashbacks and reintegrate yourself. Panic attacks don’t occur without reason; they arise to help you confront your trauma (What has been frozen in time?), move through your replays any number of times, access new and different instincts and responses each time (What healing action must be taken?), and activate your entire organism in service to your healing. It takes a great deal of energy to do this; luckily, panic and terror carry that much energy.

When panic attacks or flashbacks arise, your psyche is signaling very clearly that it’s time to replay the situation that separated you from the everyday world, to explore the stimuli that brought your terror forward, and to move through your traumatic memories in instinctive and empowering ways. But it’s hard to move at all when your terror and panic compel you to freeze and dissociate. It’s like being on fire and being trapped in a block of ice at the very same time!

This kind of panic fills you with heat and energy, yet it forces you into completely frozen immobility – which doesn’t make any sense intellectually. However, when you can bring your fully-resourced awareness to the situation, you can use your skills to honor both sides of panic (see the Panic chapter in The Language of Emotions).

Panic and terror bring forward enough energy to help you reintegrate after trauma. If you can stay grounded and shoot the rapids with their assistance, panic and terror will help you renegotiate your trauma, restore your instincts, and come back to life. But make no mistake – it’s an intense process.

Panic can feel boiling hot and freezing cold, pains can come and go, screams can bubble up, and you may need to kick and yell, or run around the room. But when you’re back in one piece, your panic and terror will subside naturally – as they’re meant to – and you’ll have your life back. When you’re reintegrated, you’ll once again be able to move, think, dream, sleep, feel, laugh, and love – not because you’re perfect and unblemished, nor because you’ve erased all traces of trauma from your soul, but because you’re resourced, resilient, and whole again.

And here’s an important thing to know: The panic practice in The Language of Emotions, and Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing work can help you reintegrate and channel your panic and terror properly, but neither will erase panic and terror from your life. They can’t!

You need panic and terror – life is hazardous, and there will continue to be times when your panic will need to come forward to help you to fight, flee, freeze, dissociate, faint, or go numb. Panic isn’t the problem. Problems only arise when this powerful emotion gets caught in a feedback loop, but those problems exist in all emotions – even joy!

You’re not supposed to erase your powerful and unpleasant emotions; you’re supposed to become skilled at working with them. Your sacred tasks in the territory of panic and terror are to restore your flow so that panic can move through you when it needs to – during emergencies and traumas – and to restore your resilience after your panic has risen up to save your life. Panic is your ally.

As you work through your panic cycles, bodily movement will help you heal and reintegrate yourself. Dance, free-form movement, yoga, dao in, and tai chi, swimming, hiking, biking, and sports can help you restore your flexibility, your flow, your strength, and your playfulness.

Martial arts and self-defense classes are also wonderfully supportive, because they teach you the honorable rules of engagement for physical conflicts. Model mugging workshops are also an excellent idea – but be sure to tell the instructor you’re working your way through panic and trauma. The model mugger needs to know that when you fight back, your panic may give you superhuman strength! Model muggers are heavily padded and expertly trained, but a word to the wise is never wasted.

Remember that these practices won’t erase panic; they’ll simply restore your flow so that panic won’t dam up your emotional realm. When your flow is restored, you’ll be able to connect healthfully to all of your emotions, and if necessary, to flee, fight, freeze, or dissociate in the future if that’s your best survival option. Then, when the trauma or emergency has passed, you’ll be able to use your empathic and somatic skills to integrate your experience and restore your resilience once again. Thank you, panic and terror!

In the next post: Welcoming the Gifts of Sadness

5 Comments

The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, Part 2: Empathic Accuracy - Karla McLaren October 19, 2013 at 8:32 am

[…] fear in another, yet due to an issue inside yourself, you might intensify that fear into anxiety or panic, and then imagine that you have picked up those emotions instead. Without realizing it, you may […]

madeline bailey May 3, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Hi. I wanted to thank Tino, who spoke with me briefly at your workshop about healing trauma. In your audiobook, Energetic Boundaries, you talk about trauma being an initiation of the soul into a “walk about” and recovery being welcomed back into the tribe. I love, love, love that discovery. So at the workshop, I asked Tino how ones comes back into the tribe where there is no one who understands enough to share in ritual, and he said, “guidance, personal ritual, and use of an altar”. Since my trauma is around money, I had this idea of creating an altar with a bowl of water, and tossing coins into it. He said that sounded like a wishing well and gave it his seal of approval. I went to buy a bowl and couldn’t find what I envisioned, so I decided that being frugal was called for, plus i didn’t want to wait, so something I owned already would be perfect. I filled it half full with water, (get it, half full?) and the coins will fill it up. I started with a Susan B Anthony dollar that someone gave me as a quarter, so I had put it aside as special. I had some silver dollars on hand so i started tossing them into my water. Since that day, work has never been so good or so easy. The irony of this is that my work is based on a gift I have for making other people rich(er), which is how I finally realized that my problem is trauma. Hopefully I can start growing now that I’m back in the tribe. So thanks to both of you for your work, workshops, and Tino for helping me personally. God bless!

Karla May 5, 2014 at 10:16 am

Thanks Madeline; Tino and I are so glad that your ritual and the altar are helpful for you! We both find that even though they are often quite simple and easy to set up, rituals, shrines, and altars can help us address issues that are very difficult and troubling. There is a talent for the sacred inside people, and these approaches really tend to bring that talent forward in a lovely way. Many blessings from us!

jj March 19, 2015 at 11:44 pm

What can be done with fear that is free-associated combined with anxiety from a source that is pre-verbal and is not identifiable in terms of memory but resides solely in the unconscious and might even be generational – i.e. coded in DNA?

Karla March 21, 2015 at 7:35 am

Hi JJ — that’s a situation for deeper work, perhaps somatic therapy, which is a lovely practice to gently inquire into what’s going on with your body.

Peter Levine has developed a very good somatic practice for trauma, and he’s got licensed trainers all over the world. His site is here, and the practitioner registry is on the blue button at the top.

Another good and gentle practice is Focusing, and this site explains it (the practitioner registry is on the right-hand side).

I hope those help.

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