Panic - Regression

by Mark Sichel, LCSW and Alicia L. Cervini

In this lesson, we want to explain the concept of regression in greater depth.

What is regression?
We've mentioned in the previous lesson that people in a crisis regress to earlier, primitive ways of thinking. Regression is when our thinking apparatus, and our egos, the executive part of our psychological makeup, are functioning much like a very young pre-verbal child's.

Why does regression occur?
Here's why: When people lack mature coping mechanisms, under duress they will feel helpless. The feeling of helplessness, reminiscent of the often powerless feeling of being a child, is what thrusts a person in crisis back into primitive modes of thinking. Voila, we have regression.

So what does it mean when a person experiences regression?
When we are having a panic attack and experience regression, we're psychologically going back to a time when we did not have words at our disposal. We certainly function as adults most of the time, but once the panic sets in, we have no words for what is taking place inside of us.

When we have no words we have to resort to action. So, a panic attack for an adult is a means of self-expression similar to a frightened baby screaming in terror. Our adult minds, of course, prohibit this kind of direct expression, so instead of screaming out loud, we bottle the scream. This bottled scream causes our symptoms of panic, manifesting them physically as well as psychologically. We become truly terrified, no longer just because of the external stimuli, but also because now our own bodies seem to be staging a mutiny.

A young baby will start to scream for her mother when she is terrified, and hopefully that mother will appear to reassure and comfort her baby. The baby will keep screaming because he or she can not wait for help. Similarly, when an adult is in a state of panic, he or she cannot tolerate waiting for help. Our adult faculties are temporarily disabled. We are a 6-month-old screaming infant, only our screams, in this instance, are silent. Only our symptoms of panic are evident.

Interestingly enough, one of the most common fears of a person experiencing a panic attack, is the fear that they will scream like a crazed person. In the context of what we now know about regression, this fear makes perfect sense. A panic attack IS a kind of repressed scream, a state of terror.

In summary, regression is a temporary set-back into behaviors and adaptations that we have, overall, outgrown. Regression is caused by stress, an accumulation of unacknowledged fears and needs, and the inability to employ mature coping mechanisms to deal with these stimuli.

If you would like to continue the Panic Disorder lessons and learn how to take the first steps toward developing the coping mechanisms that will enable you to avoid regression, please read Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy.

If you would like to start at the beginning of the Panic Disorder lessons, please read What to Expect When You are Diagnosed with a Panic Disorder.


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