Therapy stories: Panic Attacks Therapy is one of the most useful inventions of the last 100 years. Through conversations with a therapist, people have a chance to understand themselves better and to lead happier less anxious lives. Here is a true story from therapy. Out of the blue, in his 28th year, Zack began to develop panic attacks at the most inconvenient moments: at an office presentation, or a business networking event he’d feel extraordinarily anxious, get an urge to run away, and often need to find a bathroom very fast. It started to become hugely debilitating for Zack, who worked in a rather unforgiving, fast moving, tech company in San Fransisco. A friend recommended a therapist. It was pretty weird to find himself on a therapist’s couch. He’d never had much time for the idea of therapy. The first thing the therapist told him was that here, in this room, he could panic just about as much as he liked and it wasn’t going to be a problem. He could run away, faint, be sick, as all fine by her. That helped immensely. They began talking about what some of these panic attacks might have in common. It was actually deeply refreshing to talk to someone who didn’t keep interrupting or shifting the agenda, someone who just kept the focus on what he was feeling and try to decode it for him. Something struck Zack as he spoke: the panic he felt had a habit of arising whenever there were expectations on him. Whenever people were waiting for him to be impressive, clever, or decisive in some way and there was a chance to make himself look like a fool or a jerk. It was as though one part of him was deliberately undermining and sabotaging the other whenever there was a opportunity to shine or triumph. “If it carries on like this, I’ll have no option but to head back home a live with my parents.” remarked Zack, darkly one day towards the end of a session. That turned out to be the start of a very fruitful line of discussion. Zack had grown up in rural Minnesota. His father was a roofer. Neither of his parents had been to college. He’d been the bright one who’d flown the nest. The gap between Zack and his parents was now huge: he might earn in 1 year what his father earned in 5. The more Zack told the therapist about his background, the more he realized what a burden of guilt he was carrying around with him. The guilt: that success was leading him to succeed his parents in a way that was at once exciting and properly frightening. Zack wanted success but being successful was also threatening to separate him from the 2 people who he felt the greatest debt to. The panic attacks seemed like a devilish way to stay faithful to his parents. It was like an act of self sabotage, calculated to protect the parents, and especially, the father, who had some competitive and envious sides to his otherwise warm nature; all this from the risks of humiliation. It was as though in one part of his mind, Zack didn’t believe he could be both an impressive adult and a loyal son. Discovering this about himself helped Zack a lot. Gradually the symptoms lessened. He learnt how to understand himself for wanting not to have the life his parents had had, and to forgive himself for looking for something better. At the same time, he accepted that he could remain loving and admiring of many qualities his parents had, and that those around him in the tech scene often didn’t. Zack continued in therapy for a year. The attacks stopped completely without any need for medication. It was as if part of his mind had been listened to and no longer felt the need to ruin Zack’s life in order to be heard. Recently, Zack was invited to address a conference of 2,000 delegate. The speech went perfectly.