Panic Attacks Arise from Within Our Psyche

Panic attacks emerge out of unconscious conflict in our psyche between aggression and passivity.

The public is not getting the best insight into a wide range of psychological ailments, including panic or anxiety attacks. Books on the subject downplay the role of the psyche or unconscious mind, and ascribe the problem, as one author wrote, to the intrusions of the conscious mind.

Sufferers from panic attacks are typically offered “solutions” that include relaxation exercises, breathing exercises, and behavioral strategies. These approaches overlook essential self-knowledge related to the problem. Deeper insight can help those sufferers who are willing to learn some basic facts about our psyche.

The description of panic attacks provided at Wikipedia includes this following statement:

Lack of assertiveness—A growing body of evidence supports the idea that those that suffer from panic attacks engage in a passive style of communication or interactions with others. This communication style, while polite and respectful, is also characteristically un-assertive. This un-assertive way of communicating seems to contribute to panic attacks while being frequently present in those that are afflicted with panic attacks [my bold italics].

As this passage suggests, passivity (or what I call inner passivity) clearly plays a role in panic attacks. Individuals can free themselves from these intense, painful attacks by understanding the inner passivity that dwells in the human psyche.

The most common conflict in our psyche is between aggression and passivity. Aggression is dished out by the inner critic (superego) in the form of mockery, scolding, accusations, harassment, and rejection. Our inner critic gets away with its unwarranted, harsh intrusion into our life, and presides as master of our personality, because our inner passivity (our self-doubt, defensiveness, and separation from our authentic self) is unable to protect us from it.

Through inner passivity, we fail to stand up to our inner critic. Hence, we are more exposed to the onslaught from our inner critic and more at its mercy. This creates inner fear. Such fear can easily escalate in intensity from worry to anxiety to panic.

Most people live in some degree of fear (mostly unconscious) of the accusations and condemnations of their inner critic. When a person’s inner passivity is pronounced or acute, he or she can be terrorized by the inner critic.

This knowledge from psychoanalysis is disregarded by modern psychology. In his book, Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks 3rd Edition (Harper, New York, 2009), Reid Wilson writes that the unconscious approach is the wrong approach. “It’s the conscious mind’s intrusion that is the problem—that little voice that says, ‘What if these sensations get worse? Something bad will happen. Watch out!”

That little voice, indeed, is sometimes conscious, though often the voice or the message is muted and therefore assimilated only unconsciously. Whether the voice is actually “heard” or is registered unconsciously, it still arises out of our unconscious. Why would someone consciously produce that fearful, negative voice? The voice is actually the voice of inner passivity, and it expresses the emotion of feeling helpless or overwhelmed. We can be driven compulsively to repeat that voice in our head, or to feel unconsciously the emotional content it represents, no matter how negative or irrational it is.

Dr. Wilson notes that many sufferers of panic attacks are plagued by the thought or expectation of losing control at some point in the future. This means, as I see it, that these individuals are experiencing inner passivity, using their fear of a future panic attack as their unconscious rationale for engaging in that negative experience of passivity in the present moment. Again, the unconscious mind is at play, making mischief. Often people are compelled to suffer with worry or anxiety about some grim future prospect that may never happen. This is because our inner passivity, an unresolved negative emotion, is determined to be experienced whenever an opportunity arises. When inner passivity remains unconscious, we are more likely to come under its influence in such negative ways.

Inner passivity is a difficult concept to understand. I have written a book on the subject, titled The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself From Inner Passivity. There is much to be said on the subject. For this short post, words written by Shakespeare capture the essence of inner passivity. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is an extremely passive character who is anxious, indecisive and overwhelmed by circumstances. At one point in the play, he utters the famous words, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” He is ostensibly expressing his indecision about committing suicide, but his words have resonated deeply down the centuries because they succinctly express what might be the most vital, deep challenge of our humanity: Do we become fully human, connecting deeply with our powers of self-regulation, or do we perish in our own fear and passivity? Do we live on the surface of awareness, content with behavioral and cognitive techniques for wisdom and self-regulation, or do we plunge deeper into our psyche where our unresolved negative emotions maintain a life of their own?

When we arise out of the non-being of inner passivity (choosing “to be” instead of “not to be”), we can overthrow the tyranny of the inner critic or superego and assume our rightful place as master of our own personality.

Most people have some degree of inner passivity, although they don’t necessarily experience panic attacks. Invariably, the fear can be traced to the conflict between inner aggression (inner critic or superego) and inner passivity. We become much braver and less fearful when we launch an inner revolution and overthrown the tyranny of the superego.

In the process, we discover our authentic self, which is the realization of our goodness, our value, our wisdom, and our power of self-regulation. Our unique self protects us from danger, self-defeat, and suffering.