Do More than Manage Panic, Treat It with EMDR Therapy

by Dana Terrell, LCSW, EAC

A recent share by an EMDR client named Amy who struggled with panic has inspired this article.  She gave permission to share her story:

I am amazed with my results from EMDR Therapy. 

Overwhelmed with anxiety and panic on a daily basis, I thought I was out of options. I had been to talk therapy regularly, but with little to no improvement. That all changed when I began seeing my EMDR Therapist. EMDR Therapy is successful because it works with your brain; how your brain stores trauma, and the ripple down effects of untreated trauma (ie: anxiety and panic.) 

Upon meeting my new EMDR therapist, I was diagnosed with PTSD. My panic attacks were directly related to my PTSD triggers. It was such a relief to hear this diagnosis.

During my first EMDR session, she told me that she thinks panic can be treated. I’ve been to 3 different therapists and none of them told me it could be treated. Managed, yes. Treated, no. So naturally, hearing the words “treat panic” was a symphony for my soul. After a list of therapy goals and roughly 12 sessions of EMDR Therapy later, I can honestly say that I am panic free. I feel a constant flow of positive energy through my mind and body, and my thoughts are so much clearer now. 

Amy, age 26, San Diego


Amy’s previous therapists are not alone in their beliefs. I heard a psychological expert on panic say the same thing on NPR radio one day while I was driving to an errand.  She took my breath away when the featured expert concluded that Panic cannot be treated, only managed.  All I can say is that is not my experience or that of many EMDR therapists.

You may be interested in two other articles about how Panic can be treated by an EMDR Therapist that can be found on this ComprehensiveTherapyApproach website. Please link to them under this paragraph.  The first article is based on contributions to panic treatment by Francine Shapiro, PhD and Marcia Whisman, LCSW.  Panic experiences are treated as traumas through EMDR’s approach — something panic sufferers can easily agree to. 

The second article gives guidance and support to loved ones of panic disordered individuals.  Sometimes the support system needs support, because it can be very difficult to witness or hear about the intense distress the loved one feels.  Supporters can feel helpless, powerless, and frustrated.  This article will give both understanding of the condition and practical tips for how to help.

What a Panic! Dealing with Panic or Anxiety Attacks

Supporting Your Loved One with Panic or Anxiety

The above treatment methods have worked for about 80% of my panic clients, but not all.  Last year I took an Advanced EMDR Therapy Training offering the EMDR Early Trauma Protocol.  This training was developed by Sandra Paulsen, PhD and Katie O’Shea, LPC, to whom I am very grateful, because I’m finding that many clients with anxiety or panic issues have early exposure to anxious or stressful persons or conditions that help to make their puzzling symptoms under-standable.  Let me give you two examples.

Case 1

Young college student in his 20’s with severe panic symptoms, including heart palpitations, dizziness and vertigo, inability to concentrate, depression, and an odd sensation of a knocking/shifting in his head.  I referred him to a neurologist to rule out physical issues.  That assessment took a while but the results were positive:  no physical issues causing the symptoms. 

This client’s panic began when he discovered through a Facebook post that his girlfriend was betraying him.  Her new lover actually posted a brag to that effect. 

We processed all aspects of that trauma with EMDR and his symptoms did reduce.  He was able to attend his classes at university and complete most of his assignments.  However, the strange head knocking sensations continued.

We turned to the EMDR Therapy Early Trauma (ET) Protocol.  EMDR’s Standard Protocol works for events that happened around age 5 or older, once visual memories are fairly clear. ET Protocol can target early time periods, allowing the body to do the remembering.  As we targeted the first period in utero, the first 5 weeks when the embryo is usually feeling very free and positive, he could feel that terrible symptom in his head. I felt very sad and badly for him, as he went on to describe, “My father is yelling and shoved my mother into the wall.  The sound is dying down. Now it’s quiet and Mom is rubbing her belly and telling me that everything will be alright.”

We continued processing that memory until it didn’t bother him anymore.

He contacted his mother after that to ask:  “Was there ever any violence between you and Dad?”  She replied “Only once, very early in my pregnancy with you.  Your Dad was very drunk and wanted to drive to a bar. I had already hidden the car keys and his shoes.  He was very mad about that and shoved me into the wall.  We argued and he passed out on the sofa.  I knew I was pregnant with you, so I patted my stomach and told you everything would be ok.”

So he got quick confirmation that his experience was quite accurate!

Case 2

A young woman in her 30’s with Panic, PTSD and Depression.  Her panic symptoms included heart racing, difficulty breathing, and a fear of passing out. She had experienced panic since her college days.  This now made it hard for her to be herself with people, handle new events (including her upcoming wedding) and drive.

By working on relevant traumas from school and childhood, her panic symptoms declined in all areas of her life except driving on the freeway.  She still had a persistent fear of being stuck on the freeway, though this had never happened to her.  In fact, her only bad experience related to driving happened when she was 5 and her mother had a car accident when she was in the car.  She was left alone in the car when her mother talked with the victim and others, so this was a distressing memory.  However we cleared it and it gave her no more distress.  She was able to overcome her fear of driving on city streets, but still could not drive on the freeway without someone in the car with her.

At this point in her therapy, I had just been trained in the EMDR Early Trauma Protocol which was a good thing!  As we went through the time periods when she was in utero,  no major issues concerned her.  Then we reached birth.  She reported, “My arm is wrapped around my head and I’m stuck in the birth canal.”  [She added that she had been told that she was somehow stuck in the canal for over 24 hours, when ultrasound wasn’t available to tell the medical staff what the problem was.  She was finally delivered by Ceasarian section.] We processed that memory for 3 sessions because the pain and difficulty of being completely stuck was so distressing.

Now her freeway fear made sense to her and I.  This unresolved memory gave her a great fear of ever experiencing a similar “stuckness.”  Being surrounded by cars in a giant traffic jam was her worst case scenario that still kept her fearful, even though it had never happened to her.  After resolving this memory, she is now practicing solo drives on the freeway, gradually driving longer distances, expanding her comfort zone.

As you can now understand, the EMDR Early Trauma Protocol has become a very useful treatment resource for panic disordered clients!  It helps to confirm that with EMDR, we can do more than manage panic and phobias.  We can treat them.