NLP Practitioner Training:
Understanding and Working with Panic Attacks

by Carl Buchheit

Written in 2011

Definition of Panic Attack (from Mayo Clinic website):

“A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that develops for no apparent reason and triggers severe physical reactions. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.”

When clients come into the NLP practitioner’s office, they often describe panic attacks in exactly this way: a sudden episode of intense fear that develops for no apparent reason. The attacks are always frightening, and often they overwhelm the client’s capacity to deal with everything that has become connected with the “attack” experience–people, places, activities, etc. By the time they come in, clients are usually well into the process of adapting to and hoping to continue to tolerate severe restrictions on their freedom of action and movement. Even worse, for most people, the apparently mysterious nature of “panic for no reason” has been replaced by less mysterious, more predictable, but nearly arbitrary associations between their experience of panic and being in some specific activity or environment–such as driving on a bridge, or on a roadway with no shoulder area, or on any kind of freeway.  Again, these associations, between panic and situation A, or panic and activity B in condition C, etc., are very nearly arbitrary. What were once merely neural associations (“neurons that fire together, wire together”) evolve and generalize to become cognitive understandings, e.g., “I panic because I drive on the bridge.” These disturbing generalizations can provide a certain kind of comfort, they make “panic” a predictable and, therefore, avoidable experience. (“I’m not crazy, I’m just afraid of bridges; when I stay away from bridges, I’m OK.”)

Alas, one of the main tendencies of our “neural legacy” safety patterning is to generalize the experience of fear. Again, our creature neurology does not think or speak, but if it did, it would say something like: “If x amount of fear and panic makes my organism safe, then surely 3x amount of fear and panic will make it at least three times safer! OK, let’s generalize this thing!!!  What else is [even a little bit] similar to what we are already panicking about? Let’s panic about that TOO.  Excellent!!!  SAFER, SAFER, SAFER!!!” Of course, the human, who is mostly on the receiving end of this good intention, becomes more and more terrified about more and more different things and situations. The human is in a difficult spot when the brain learns to associate quantity and intensity of fear with degree of safety.

Eventually, the person begins to panic about the possibility of panicking–they are afraid that they will be afraid. “What if I panic while I’m driving!?” “What if I panic while I’m in the meeting!?” “What if I panic while I’m on the bridge (…in the plane, at the party, in the city, too far from my house, too far from my town, etc.)?  After a time of trying to think and reason themselves out of what their brain is providing for them (i.e., safety through fear), the client is so demoralized and bewildered that fear of fear and panic about panicking are the experiences that make the most sense, that seem to be most understandable and rational, and are, therefore, very highly valued. This development makes things worse for the client, in terms of their being able to find their way to more secure experience in their world.

For the Transformational NLP Practitioner, it is vital to stay connected with the awareness that “no apparent reason” is not the same as no reason at all. In fact, once the representational structure and belief-level underpinnings of panic attacks are adequately and accurately unpacked, it is not uncommon for a person with this presenting issue to begin a conversation with, “I just want everything to be the way that it was.” As a Transformational NLP Practitioner, one of the first maneuvers one has to make is to build rapport with the parts or aspects of the client’s consciousness that are creating the panic, respecting the intended positive outcome of the panic attack experiences, while simultaneously maintaining rapport with the client’s conscious self that is, of course, massively out of rapport with the panic attacks–that is terrified of them.

To resolve this, a practitioner’s first internal questions are always, “How is this experience organized? How is this person’s brain doing this? How is it generating a panic response, a full blown, adrenaline based freeze/flight/fight reaction–something normally reserved for seriously dangerous situations (lions, and tigers, and bears!)  to something that “ought to be” innocuous or easily manageable (bridges, and tunnels, and walking the dog!).

In NLP terms, the programming language of the brain, the source code for human reality, is mainly a series of pictures (Visuals or V’s), sounds (Auditory representations or A’s) and feeling responses (Kinesthetic representations or K’s). In order to help someone begin to mitigate or remove the patterning for a panic reaction, we need to know what, literally, the person’s brain is looking at and/or listening to in their mind’s other-than-conscious eyes and ears.  These are what cause the panic reaction, nothing else, and these are almost always representational imprints from long ago and far away. The triggers are proximate in the client’s current world (the bridge, tunnel, etc.), but the dark magic of the panic itself is usually caused by learning from far, far away. The underlying practitioner question is, as always, “What are the V’s and A’s that are making these very negative K’s?”

When tracking down the original imprinting by stabilizing and unpacking eye accesses, we, as practitioners, are looking for imprints that have an isomorphic structure (same shape and feel) as the unwanted present state. So, here our work also involves making the elements of the original imprint–that were worth being terrified about–conscious for the client, thus normalizing the panicky feelings as we disconnect all of the past learning from the current trigger(s).

Once the literal content of the earlier imprinted learning becomes available, the essential re-frame is simply: “If I were looking at that on the inside every time I was (on a bridge, in a tunnel, out for a walk, driving), I would be panicking also.” This normalizing of the panic experience introduces the idea that the fear is actually a sensible reaction to specific internal events–the other-than-conscious internal representations–which have continued to operate within the client’s unconscious system.

Why fear processes continue far beyond their usefulness is a subject for another article–for many articles, actually. For example, whose points of perception–whose eyes, for instance–are being used to generate the client’s out-of-date, apparently spurious, but still panic-worthy representations? Clients will frequently age-regress into their parents’, or even their grandparents’ experience.  These issues of identity, loyalty, and trans-generational belonging go far beyond the relatively simply VAKOG sequencing of strategy-level work with fear and panic issues.

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