I lived with panic attacks my entire life. Ahead, I’m sharing how EMDR made them go away forever.
“Many of our emotional reactions don’t fully have to do with what is currently going on. They are actually old emotions that are being accumulated from the past—patterns that arise when unfamiliar situations appear.” – Young Pablo
Panic attacks are such an interesting thing. They’re so real, and yet they’re not at all. A panic attack lasts roughly 20 minutes maximum and is normally triggered by something or someone that brings us back to an old situation that felt traumatic or deeply unpleasant. For me, for example, it would happen when I was around a lot of people, mostly at school during class or inside restaurants and theaters. I’d be pervaded by the strongest fear of fainting or throwing up in front of everybody and, as a consequence, by the fear of being rejected. Our minds are so strange sometimes but so powerful if we figure out how to “trick” them. I lived with panic attacks from the age of 12 till I turned 19, and then it all changed when I moved out of my parent’s house, left my hometown, and went to college.
I’ll always remember this. I was in the middle of a panic attack—palpitations, short breath, extreme anxiety, hands were heavily sweating, and stomach completely closed off—and I suddenly closed my eyes and thought to myself: this isn’t real, this is not happening. I kept repeating that over and over like a mantra. For the first time, I was able to detach myself from what I was living in my body and realized panic attacks are just a physical simulation of our fears and our triggering thoughts. Within minutes, it was gone. And that was the time I knew I could beat them forever. I had a therapist at the time, but somehow we never clicked; she was great, but I wasn’t in the right mindset to commit to it, and I would skip a lot of appointments. I wasn’t really able to be honest about how I felt and why I was there. I would avoid talking about things that were too painful to deal with at that time. She knew it, of course, and so she did something beautiful for me. She canceled all our sessions, saying I wasn’t ready to do the work. She was right. Then she said: “When you are ready, here are two therapists that I personally love and that I think would both be great for you. So what you do is you call both of them and go with the one whose voice you like the most.” And so I did, and that’s how I discovered EMDR.
EMDR is a unique, nontraditional psychotherapy technique developed in California by psychologist Francine Shapiro in 1989. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. When my primary doctor suggested I take Valium for my panic attacks, something inside of me felt so off. Although I did fill the prescription, I then took it to my EMDR therapist and started crying, saying I didn’t feel like taking it. The idea that my life would be dependent on those medications to cure my panic attacks was rather frightening. My therapist was smiling, and her eyes were just so kind and calming that I knew she’d guide me through it all with EMDR and without needing to take those medications.
After I left that session, I tossed the bottle of Valium on my way home and felt like a new person already, even though I knew that the work was just starting. I was super scared and anxious, but the excitement about the idea of feeling better was so much bigger. It’s like when you have to work out, and you know it’s going to be painful and not so fun while you do it, but the feeling afterward is priceless. I took therapy as religiously as I could, and I’d feel better and better after every session. I used to journal when and how my panic attacks would appear, and by monitoring it all month by month, we came to break the pattern by analyzing its deepest roots through EMDR.
If you’ve experienced any sort of PTSD from something that might have happened to you at a conscious or unconscious level, you’ll benefit so much from EMDR. Every therapist uses different ways to practice the method—either by the patient’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements or through knee or shoulder tapping, it makes you reprocess older memories that were perceived by our brain as traumatic. Your therapist will ask you to recall a certain traumatic event (which most likely is the cause of the panic attacks in this case) and to re-live it during the EMDR session.
By inducing the memory of distressing events and diverting attention from their emotional consequences, EMDR helps you reprocess the event itself and re-file it in your “memory box” as something that happened but is no longer a threat, therefore reducing anxiety. This is key for patients to take control of their upsetting thoughts, which are the triggering points of panic attacks and nervous breakdowns. I promise it’s not as complicated as it sounds; rather, it’s a quite smooth and liberating process. Each session can last from 45 to 90 minutes, and a minimum of 10-12 sessions is recommended.
I can’t express enough the improvement that EMDR brought to my emotional and social life. Everything felt lighter and more manageable. My panic attacks were milder and milder, and then eventually, they completely disappeared. I could talk to people without major fears of rejection, and I could finally be OK in crowded places again. When my panic attacks were over, it felt like I was actually just getting started with my life. I experienced a complete sense of rebirth, and I had this new inner light to guide me through new challenges, as I had just overcome the one that, at that time, felt like the most insurmountable. And as a gentle reminder, therapy is never something to feel ashamed of. Everyone can benefit from seeing a therapist—no matter how old you are or how proud you’re trying to be. I’d even say it’s rather essential to our emotional healing and mental health, to help us dampen the power of emotionally charged memories of past traumatic events.
This is just one personal experience of taking charge of anxiety—there are millions of similar stories. If you’re experiencing panic attacks or struggling to cope with anxiety or depression, you’re not alone, and there’s no reason to be ashamed of properly caring for your mental wellness.
For help, consider using online mental health services and support lines:
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
If you are struggling with depression or having suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
In honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10, WHO will be hosting a global online advocacy event on mental health. You can find more details about the live-streamed day here.