Do you frequently have panic attacks when dating? Are you unsure on how to stop your panic attacks and start having a fun dating experience? To help understand what are some possibly causes for having a panic attack while dating and what you can do to cope with panic attacks when dating, I have interviewed therapist Robert Salinger LMFT.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a licensed Marital and Family Therapist practicing integrative therapy. Integrative therapy is a relationship-based, contact oriented approach utilizing authenticity and active involvement to enable clients to connect with themselves on a deeper level. This approach emphasizes the discovery of new and more flexible ways to connect with others and to resolve life’s challenges.
I studied with Richard Erskine, PhD, and Rebecca Trautman, MSW, for ten years. I have continued to study Dr. Milton Erickson’s approaches to communication and change for the past thirty years. I have been in full time private practice for the past twenty-one years, and specialize in stress related disorders, PTSD, panic attacks and relationship problems.”
What could be some possibly causes for someone having a panic attack while dating?
“A panic attack is an acute fear response that occurs when a person’s physiology triggers the fight or flight mechanism. The body goes into overdrive and the individual becomes scared of what is happening in his/her body: rapid heartbeat, dizziness, chest tightness, and the sensation of being trapped. He/she becomes scared about feeling scared and feels a sense of loss of control. Following the first panic attack it is common to anticipate when and where the next one will happen. This anticipatory anxiety can induce the next panic attack. Part of the reason we panic is that initially, we are unaware of the reason for our reaction and so we associate the panic attack with the activity we were engaged in at the time. Thus, if a person was crossing a bridge when he/she had a panic attack, that person might decide, “I am afraid of bridges.” So the individual avoids bridges and then has a panic attack at the grocery store, so he/she avoids the grocery store. This process can continue until he/she is avoiding going out or thinking about the grocery store, or perhaps he/she thinks about food and through association the brain perceives a threat and anxiety or a panic attack develops. An additional problem is that individuals become highly sensitized to any body sensation that could signal a panic attack. This state of vigilance contributes to anxiety and fear of another panic attack.
Dating relationships involve new experiences of intimacy, balancing the sense of self-identity with the need to compromise and acknowledge the needs of another. Dating is a time when unresolved feelings about relationships begin to effect how we act with our partners. Expectations based on insecurities and fears can interfere with a secure mature relationship. As closeness develops and attachment bonds form, the potential for real or perceived loss can promote anxiety and/or panic attacks.”
So why do we have panic attacks in the first place?
“Well, our brains store unpleasant experiences in neural networks and similar kinds of negative experiences become associated. These networks become activated when we encounter or anticipate some experience that our brains perceive as threatening, triggering the primitive fight- flight response. Traumatic memories are stored in the primitive part of the brain called the limbic system. These memories are often experienced as feelings and sensations. This process takes only a second or less and is often unconscious. We may become aware of an uncomfortable sensation like feeling dizzy, cold, shaky, difficulty breathing, or feeling trapped. Without an obvious cause for these feelings and sensations fear escalates and the experience that we are loosing control or going crazy, accompanies a panic attack.
When someone has learned to forget unpleasant relational experiences from the past, to cut off or deny emotions, to have perfectionist expectations, to feel insecure or have poor self esteem or feels as though they must be in control of everything in his/her life, the individual becomes more vulnerable to panic attacks. In relationships, fears of being judged, changes in the level of contact and intimacy, and fears of rejection or abandonment can precipitate a panic attack. A panic attack can occur at any point in the relationship process from initial introductions to marriage and having children, or children leaving home. It is only necessary that we perceive a threat to our safety, security, and self-esteem or experience a feeling that has been stored as a memory from past times to initiate a panic attack. There are also certain medical conditions that can bring on a panic attack, so it is often a good idea to be examined medically as a part of treatment.”
What type of impact can panic attacks while dating have on someone’s life?
“When someone experiences panic attacks while dating it can put a serious strain on the relationship in several ways. As someone increasingly attempts so avoid situations because they anticipate trouble, the social, recreational and interpersonal vitality of the relationship can be inhibited. This leads to frustration and resentment on the part of the partner. A partner who feels helpless to “fix” the problem may become overly controlling or protective, or become critical and withdrawn. Panic attacks also lower self-esteem and can make a partner appear needy and dependent, which can scare either member of the couple. I do want to say that partners can also be supportive and understanding, lest I paint too dark a picture.”
How can someone cope with having panic attacks when dating?
“First it is important to know that a panic attack has a beginning, middle, and an end. The actual panic attack is generally over in ten minutes or less. Otherwise we are talking about generalized anxiety: an ongoing feeling of dread or apprehension that something will go wrong. People will often hyperventilate, causing dizziness. Breathing into a small paper bag can help regulate oxygen carbon dioxide levels. Slow breathing that is regular and rhythmic can help if a person starts early enough. Negative thoughts often become part of our reaction to panic attacks. We may think “Oh no!” or “I hope I don’t have a panic attack,” or “I am going crazy!” These thoughts need to be stopped and replaced with coping statements such as: ‘I am learning to relax, I can handle feeling nervous, I will figure out how to solve this’.”
What type of professional help is available for someone who has panic attacks when dating?
“The standard medical treatment for panic attacks is antidepressant medication. Originally tranquilizers were prescribed, and they work in the short term but are addictive and only function for a short period. An individual may end up taking tranquilizers three times a day, increasing the possibility of tolerance and dependence. Primary care physicians can often prescribe an antidepressant that will eliminate symptoms after two to four weeks. Sometimes, tranquilizers are used temporarily while an antidepressant is taking affect. Medications will probably make the symptoms go away but will not resolve the original causes or teach new coping mechanisms. Seeing a therapist can help resolve the underlying reasons that someone is having panic attacks. Often panic attacks are a signal that something in a person’s life needs attention. Unresolved feelings about relationships, past traumas, or self-worth frequently are at the heart of panic attacks. Often when my clients are able to acknowledge their feelings instead of trying to control or deny them, and face memories in a way that allows them to be processed, the panic attacks cease to be a problem. Sometimes this can happen without medication, and other times medication and therapy work best. People who are unwilling to see a therapist can sometimes get relief through medication alone.”
Thank you Robert for doing the interview on how to cope with panic attacks when dating. For more information on Robert Salinger or his work you can check out his website on robertsalinger.com.
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