Panic and Separation Anxiety

Posted On October 25, 2019


In my last post, I recounted an Icelandic tale about a woman alone with her small children who becomes so panicked by a sudden noise and a chilly wind (was it a monster or a winter storm?) that the family abandons their farm.  While we know nothing of this particular woman’s history, we do know that most panic sufferers share some things in common.  And my guess is that she did as well.

People experiencing panic often have a history of separation anxiety and/or childhood parental loss (think divorce, disruption, or death).  Indeed, childhood separation anxiety is widely recognized as the early life pathway to adult panic disorder.  As we learn more about the physiology of panic, the links between childhood experience, possible genetic factors, and panic are becoming clearer.

One important link between  children with separation anxiety and adults with panic disorder is that both have carbon dioxide hypersensitivity.  We’ve learned this detail through studies conducted in a lab where  study participants are given a single gulp of carbon dioxide-enriched air. This provokes panic symptoms in kids with separation anxiety and adults with panic disorder, but has little or no effect on people without these conditions.  One of the reasons why Freespira is so effective is that it builds self-management skills that address carbon dioxide sensitivity, which decreases or eliminates panic symptoms.

Here’s how I understand the origins of panic. In all likelihood, certain genetic risk factors are present in the individual.  Then, after exposure to adverse childhood experiences or trauma, the gene is  ‘turned on’  and sensitizes certain brain pathways to set the stage for panic attacks.  As a result, the panic attack comes to be triggered by an external situation (like freeway traffic or airplane turbulence) or by a distressing bodily sensation (like a heart flutter).

I hope this explanation reduces the mystery and shame that panic sufferers often experience.  Panic is not a sign of weakness. People can’t choose their genetic make-up or early life environment.  But they can get relief and live panic free.  Wouldn’t it have been great if effective treatments like Freespira had been available in 19th century Iceland – maybe the family farm would still be running.

Stay tuned! My next blog is a Halloween special: How can you scare somebody who has never been scared before?

From time to time, Palo Alto Health Sciences (Freespira) will share articles that discuss breathing techniques for panic attacks and other anxiety-related conditions that may not be consistent with the science-based and clinically-proven method behind Freespira. In such cases, we share the article for general informational purposes only, without any endorsement or recommendation.