Overcoming Fear, Anxiety & Panic Attacks

Men ignore things in the ridiculous hope that they will go away. I tell them the only things that go away when they’re consistently ignored are women and teeth. By the time they’re talking to me, whatever they’re struggling with has happened repeatedly and has brought them to their knees. That’s the problem with us – as long as we can tolerate something, we probably will.

The first time it happened, he was sure he was going to die. He knew the symptoms of a heart attack, but at 29 he was pretty sure it couldn’t be what was happening. He barely got the car to the side of the road before doubling over in pain. It felt like an eternity before he could breathe comfortably, but it was actually about ten minutes.

This was his first panic attack.

He didn’t tell anyone. He told himself it was some kind of fluke. Like a bad dream or maybe it was just something he ate. Such is the denial of men. He drank a lot that night and told himself he was “just stressed out.”

He came to see me after several months of experiencing attacks. I asked about his anxiety and he was shocked that I knew he lives with it. I explain that panic attacks are a culmination of anxiety and that they tend to occur when we don’t resolve inner conflicts and cope in healthy ways.

Panic attacks, PTSD, OCD, GAD – all of these are anxiety disorders and all of them involve coping with overwhelming emotions. Fear is specific and anxiety is general. When we repress (stuff) our negative emotions and experiences, we throw gasoline on a fire that’s already burning. Eventually the only possible outcomes are implosion or explosion.

Panic attacks are a severe form of implosion. They’re overwhelming physically, mentally, and emotionally. They involve an intense loss of control and perspective. Nothing seems okay and all there is to do in the midst of one is sit, breath, and pray.

We talk about coping and predictably he avoids and ignores most of his insecurities and fears. We talk about delving deeper as what he is afraid of on the surface is clearly masking something much deeper. The fear he is aware of is about driving his car. Fear of driving in winter conditions or in unknown cities is very common. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything deeper going on.  When folks describe feelings of being trapped or fearful because they don’t have control, there often is an underlying fear.  In these cases there’s often a connection to past painful experience and/or future anticipated loss.

This young man fears his future. He lacks confidence and faith in himself. His fears run him because he keeps them hidden and shares them with no one. He’s ashamed to admit his fears and I’m still asking him to dig deeper. I know from experience that if we only resolve one problem, another surfaces. Resolution is more about what’s missing and how to get it. It’s more about HOW we deal with fear than it is what we’re worried about today.

He tells me he’s afraid of getting lost, afraid of breaking down, afraid of losing control, afraid he’ll crash and burn, afraid he won’t see it coming, afraid he won’t be able to merge (fit in have space). He lists several other fears – all of which I write down. I hand him the list and ask him, “Pretend that this list belongs to someone else. What are they afraid of?” I swear I can see a light bulb hanging over his head. “Well, those fears could be about failing in any important part of their life.”

Right.

I ask him to take stock. We evaluate everything of importance in his life and gradually he comes to see his real fears. They are inadequacies and insecurities. Boiling these down we see a fine line between expectations of failure and fear of failure. Underneath it all is the need for greater support, encouragement, and faith. He needs to be shown his potential and his worth and he needs someone to help him get out of his own way.

I can point toward the path but I can’t walk it with him – not really. He needs family, friends, mentors, guidance and hugs. All of us need that and the older we get the harder these things are to ask for (not that they were ever easy).

The opposite of anxiety is security. The opposite of panic is serenity. Filling the emptiness with healthy things and exposing the fears that drive us leaves us with greater stability and health. Overcoming any anxiety disorder is a tall order but it’s important to remember that they can be done.  

Confidence comes from doing it. Faith is believing in something/someone that hasn’t been proven. That’ why we need people who believe in us.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in assisting people in recovery (whether from drugs, alcohol, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles and improve their quality of life.