Mind Matters — Panic—No More

Tom Bunn, the author of Panic Free, started out as a pilot. In that capacity, he tried for years to help people who feared flying. Then, eureka—a solution—which, he says, not only quells the fear of flying, but also manages panic states encountered on the ground as well.

After years of study, he learned that the real issue of panic is the “inability to regulate the intensity of feelings.” When in a state of panic, an individual’s imagination is in overdrive, conjuring scenarios that are life-threatening and with no escape.

Some symptoms of panic include palpitations, sweating, chest pain, abdominal distress, feeling lightheaded, fearing loss of control, feelings of being detached from oneself (depersonalization), fear of dying. Any of these symptoms, together or alone, could be caused by some other psychological or medical condition. It is always advisable to consult your physician to rule out any underlying medical condition.

So what is the root of panic? Bunn explains the neuroscience. The body is governed by the autonomic nervous system which has two parts: (1) The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) revs up when there is a release of stress hormones due to the part of the brain, the amygdala, that alerts us to something unfamiliar or unexpected. (2) The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the calming influence, putting the brakes on the stress hormones when it senses safety.

How well the PNS can balance out the SNS depends a lot on what an individual’s infancy and childhood were. For example, if a person has experienced immobilization—a sense that escape is impossible—this can make that person more susceptible to panic. Bunn cites the neuroscientist Allan Schore, who talks about parents letting their baby “cry it out.” What occurs is not good sleep but an infant who enters a “frozen state of dissociated terror.” This is a state of immobilization: the freeze response.

Children continually re-traumatized by crying themselves to sleep may be prone to future immobilizations and panic in the future. The noted neuroscientist Stephen Porges regards immobilization as a primitive mechanism and defense of last resort.

We see immobilization occur in situations of rape, where the woman did not fight back. Immobilization should never be confused with complicity. When the thinking part of the brain is shut down in panic, fighting is not possible unless, says Bunn, defensive action has been programmed into the unconscious.

Bunn considers that his program can help create such automatic responses even for those whose formative years were traumatic. Most importantly, however, Bunn’s method, outlined in Panic Free, “picks up where early childhood development was arrested by helping…[the individual] develop…the parasympathetic nervous system.”

An infant’s PNS develops in response to a caregiver’s attuned face, calm voice, and loving touch. With consistent caring responses, as the child’s brain develops, the caregiver and these characteristics become internalized. When the child gets upset, the child then imagines the caregiver and this, in turn, activates the PNS. If the caregiver then comes to the child with a calming response, the child’s expectations are reinforced. Bunn describes a four step program that begins to gel in the brain: hyperarousal causes a child to want their caregiver; because the caregiver is consistent, the expectation is that the caregiver will appear; the child imagines the face, voice, and touch; the child’s imagination activates calming PNS.

A personal anecdote I can share is about my granddaughter. She goes to preschool on four days of the week and spends one day with me. Sometimes about 4:30 in the afternoon when she is with me, she wants to phone Mommy. Mommy usually picks her up at daycare around that time. As soon as she hears her voice, she is calm. Her PNS is developing, and she is learning to “down regulate.”

Adults who were not able to establish the “four-step program” and whose PNS needs some adjustment can find help with Panic Free.

It is a good primer for parents too.