Many people these days are wandering into their GPs offices with varying symptoms of anxiety stress, worry and fear for the future. Money problems and marital issues being the most prevalent subjects of discussion. Other occurrances are symptoms of anxiety or aggitation due to unexpressed emotions, such as grief, or frustrations which go hand in hand with daily living.  All alot to contend with.  There are many approaches to the symptoms which may occur.

Many doctors are very aware that at least 80 percent of the known illnesses can be connected to stressful situations in our lives, but many are not so sure.

In the area of the so-called alternative or complementary medicine it is very much the accepted fact that most illnesses can be directly linked to chronic stress.

You might think you know what stress is and how it manifests, but not until you  experience the  very strong and profound symptoms, of stress, do you know fully what it is all about.

Why else do we by in large ignore the symptoms. Mostly stress occurs for us in a low grade fashion, a fashion which we become acustomed to. We mould ourselves around it.  Its only when it gets more profound and more extreme, that we pay any attention to the stress.

I’m talking about panic attacks, or we might otherwise call them adrenaline surge attacks.

What happens when we are put under attack, whether by a work colleague, a friend where we have need to defend ourselves, or if we are put face to face with a bear, whilst camping in Canada?

Quite naturally our system goes into fight and flight mode.  Most of us know all this.  That its all in response to fright. What most of us dont fully realise that the adrenaline hormone, which naturally is produced by the adrenal glands which nicely sit on top of our kidneys, is a very powerful hormone. It keeps us safe. It is poured into our blood stream immediately in response to any of the above.  It already is there, but now we get a full quick shot of it.  It happens if we need to break suddenly in the car.  It happens normally.  It happens when we get a shock, which response is to run or to freeze.

What happens in these normal situations?

The adrenalin, causes our central blood vessels ie the vessels of the important organs, to open up and so the blood flow goes to them giving them a charge of energy, and the peripheral blood vessel become narrower as a result.  It causes the muscles in the sphincters which control our bowel and ability to pee, to tighten, to prepare us for flight. It causes as a result of the blood vessel change, our blood pressure to rise, slightly.  It causes our pulse rate to rise as more blood is pumped to the central body.  Some times we can get a headache from all this happening. We can feel short of breath as we try to breath.  We can hear our blood flow through our ears, or we can become suddenly aware of our heart beat. If it is beating rapidly, it can be a frightening thing in itself.

We can feel tingling or pins and needles as the adrenalin is charging through our bodies.  When we start to move or run, all the energy which is now highly charged is put to use. Once the immediate emergency or urgency is over and the adrenalin excess used up we should go back to the normal state of being which is ideal circumstances is a state of equal balance of the adrenal gland function, not too much adrenalin and not too little.

When it happens that a continual adrenalin release ensues, and there is no let up after the event, our bodies then over time begin to wear out.  It is the adrenal glands which in fact wear out.  Our nervous system in general is closely linked with  our adrenal system. The thyroid gland system is also directly linked.  The reproductive system, ovaries and testes are directly linked. Over all of this the Master Gland the Pituitary Gland is in charge.  Its of course lodged deep within our brains, and up and behind our ajna centre between the eyebrows. No coincidence that the Meditation practice of focus, and visualization of light between the eyes, has been practiced for thousands of years in the East.

As you can imagine there are so many reasons why we might put ourselves into continual emergency mode.  They can stem from right back in the womb, as we come through the birth canal. All that squeezing and trying to push through such a tight tunnel of muscle and tissue, with the simultaneous extreme tightening and compressing pressure of our mother’s contractions. We can also pick up on, or another way of looking at it, we can absorb our mothers state of emergency, or stress, or fear, as we are passing through the birth canal.  She is also in extreme agony, and she also may have a fear of dying, so similar to the death process can it be.  So we can come through with  the aftermath of deep stress having occurred.  Our bodies as babies will have undergone alot of contortion, and moving and twisting to try to find the easiest root out.  Sometimes we get stuck, sometimes the cord can be tight around our necks, and make us feel like we are not able to breath, as we try to take our first breath.  These can leave imprints in our memory banks, or in our psyche.  Usually stoved down deep within our unconscious.

As young children we can be subjected to various stresses, frights, shocks, for all kinds of different reasons.  Simple ones such as falling of a wall, or a swing. Other ones such as witnessing our parents rowing and argueing, or witnessing slaps, or being slapped. Other ones where a teacher has shamed us, or shouted as us, belittling us.  All of these examples cause us to react.  The reactions vary.  Some children internalise the reaction. Others react themselves outwardly.  Attention seeking behaviour which has often been classified as ADD or ADHD, and which is grossly overdiagnosed, is often due to a child being overly stressed and seeking attention, to be soothed.  Bedwetting which is prolonged past the expected age is a sign of stress in a child.  It is sometimes physiological, but mostly it is down to stress,  fear which is lodged in the kidneys.

As we get older, moving into teens, there are more overt causes of anxiety and stress.  In  school life the most obvious ones are in relation to study, performance scholastically, exams, and generally how we compare ourselves with our peers.  Wanting to be the same and not different at this age can cause alot of stress.

At this stage in the discussion, we should remind ourselves of how we might manifest that stress again by remembering how adrenalin operates within the body, and the symptoms which can result from too much being pushed through.

Already the scenario of stress being internalised may be starting.  The years already may have passed where it has not been safe to express our anxiety or fears, or to express our anger.  If we come from families where there is alot of anger or the opposite to that being cold withdrawal, it is in both situations not safe to express. The internalisation of what we need to say can have an internal anxiety or stress reaction.

When we have not been able to run or free up that excess adrenalin then it has a negative effect within our bodies.

If we have come from backgrounds where we have not had enough loving or cuddles from Mum or Dad, and when we have been distressed or frightened and we have not had them there to sooth us , our bodies will go into this adrenalin reaction, and will stay there for longer after the event.

Years of staying in a prolonged state at times will be fine for most of us, until we hit an extra stressful time, .. This might be a more major exam, or it might be childbirth, and postnatal period, where not enough sleep occurs, or heavy blood loss during the labour, resulting in major depletion of energy, or not  enough nourishment ; it might be when a job deadline occurs for the first time, where we feel compelled to perform to the utmost of our abilities; or when women start to change during the menapause, or men who also are changing around the same time.

What may happen then its as if we have had a button which when once pressed  emitted the hormone, became stuck,  and instead of a time of recovery after the event, there are extreme anxiety symptoms.

Panic attack  is so called because we feel panicked. Not able to cope.  It comes on very suddenly with no warning, and so feels as if we are under seige.   We get mild to major symptoms, of weakness, sweating, palpitation, heart racing , blurred vision, ringing in ears, weakness and wobbly knees, dizziness amongst others which might be lesser in intensity.

The way it can be managed is by firstly find a way to calm the adrenalin surge.  By knowing about it in the first place, places the focus back into your hands.  By learning about how adrenalin can manifest it’s effects, can be the beginning of healing this agonising journey.

In the GP’s office, often times anti-anxiety drugs are offered.  I was recently informed by a client that she was offered valium, and if that didn’t work, then told that prozac, was a good option. Certainly for some people on a short term basis, especially if the panic attacks occur at night time, and their sleep is effected majorly, it is important that the problem of insomnia, is quickly remedied, and certain mild sedatives can be most useful. The problem is though, that people become accustomed to the drugs, and in some cases addicted, especially to the valium derivatives, and then a whole new scenario, evolves.  The side effects of certain drugs involved in trying to calm the nervous system can be incapacitating. Such side effects involve headaches, nausea, blurred vision, falling asleep during the day, so are often advised not to drive, with certain medication, or operate machinery.  Long term very few antidepressants or antianxiety drugs solve the under lying problem which is at the root of why the panic attacks occur in the first place.

The late  Dr. Michael Corry, who was a psyciatrist who was very much  in favour of people choosing any method of healing which would enable them to take charge of the situation, rather than it being in charge of them. He rarely prescribed medication and advocated the use of acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine, and breathing techniques, with meditation. Also advocating pyschotherapy, when the time was right. There are many doctors who are now realising that other ways are needed to bring about healing.

It is  always useful to go to the GP to get a blood screen done, checking the status of the Thyroid gland and also outruling diabetes, as symptoms of high or low blood sugar, and of the balance of the thyroxin hormone can result in some of the symptoms concerned. Also useful to ask for a cardiac and blood pressure monitoring, as this can reassure you that all is well, from a physical point of view.

Some GPs will talk about stress management, and learning ways to manage the onset of each attack.  This in fact is the key to changing the focus of how we can be totally incapacitated by the effects of the adrenalin surge.

The ancients and the eastern and indigenous people always worked simply, and would work with breath, and then would address  food and nutrition. ‘We are what we eat’, and ‘healthy mind healthy body’.

The systems of healing I have been involved in over the past 25 years, involve incorporating western and eastern philosophies and medical systems attached.

Oriental Medicine, never divides the mind from the body, as neither does the native traditional medicine of each country. There is no such terminology as Depression or anxiety. They refer to symptoms. There are no labels, and no stigmas, and so people are far more likely to seek help soonest rather than later.

For example if someone comes to me telling me they have panic attacks, I try to have them describe their symptoms, and to take them on a journey of healing each symptom.

Using breathing techniques is hugely part of the early management of the situation. By using the breath, during a so called panic attack, helps to stop the mad surge of adrenalin, and it slows the heart rate down, and then lowers the blood pressure, and relieves the symptoms of dizziness. It is as simple as that.

Chigong which is part of the Tradition Chinese Medicine system, plays a very important role in assisting in changing the helpless feeling into taking charge again of ourselves. The system of movements which I would usually teach in the treatment of Panic Attacks involves the use of breath and certain gentle movements which allow for the gathering and storing of Chi within the area below the Naval, which is called The Dan Tian, where the core energy which is our main supply of energy, is strored. This area is where we tend to feel a sense of emptiness. It can be energetic, or physical, as in the case of hunger, and often a person will report when they look inside that this is the place which anxiety can be held too. We hold tight our bellies when stressed and anxious.

Then it is important to address what might be some of the underlying causes.  Such as the burnt out adrenal glands from long time low grade stress.  Panic attacks don’t just arrive out of nowhere. There is usually a long term tendency to be stressed.

In oriental medicine, we refer to Kidney energy or chi, being depleted.  This is the case for depression also.. and for post natal depression.. Kidney chi deficency can be at the root of the situation. I use methods to bring up the level of energy within the kidney, and the adrenal glands. To smoothen out the reactive energetic responses. To calm the nervous system. To calm the mind. Acupuncture is a powerful tool which has been used for thousands of years. For women who have panic attacks postnatally, it is often found that they would have had heavy blood loss, during or after the birth. This in itself can lead to profound depletion of energy and consequently adrenal burn out.

Apart of acupuncture, and breathing techniques, I would also use herbs, such as borage, which supports the adrenal glands, and mothewort which calms the heart palpitations. This is a herb women who are menapausal love, as it really sooths. Nettles are wonderful as a base for every treatment, as they simply nourish, and feed the nervous system..  I would use what are called nervine herbs, such as camamile and vervaine, or velarian to help sleep, amongst many others. All of these we can grow, and some of which are thought of as common weeds. It is said that what we need most grows in abundance, near where we live. Chinese herbs are most useful also, and can act very quickly to rectify the underlying imbalances in the energy system.

Of course there may be psychological issues which may need to be addressed. This needs to  come about in a relaxed and not pushy way. Once the panic attacks start to reduce, in number and frequency, if it is appropriate then it can be useful to do some councilling or psychotherapy, to heal what may be childhood traumas or memories. Memories which once starting to emerge may need someone to help make sense of or to witness the deep healing which can occur.

The healing system of Holotropic Breathwork, which was put together  by Dr. Stanislov Grof and his wife Christina, after years of research,  incorporates many ancient traditions of breathing techniques, in order to achieve an altered state of consciousness or a non-ordinary state of consciousness. When we access these states we tend to step away from the conscious mind’s strong control and let go into deep relaxation, and as the breath oxygenates the body, old pains and wounds which lie deep within the cellular memory of our bodies and minds, may begin to emerge.

With the expertise of the facilitators, old traumas, wounds and hurts which if unexpressed can result in such strong holding within the body, can be expressed . By discharging the pent up blocked energy, and also by experiencing safety within the setting, people who have felt so alone and helpless,and unsafe, can at last feel supported in a way never before. Profound healing can result in these workshops.

There are many many systems of healing to be found upon the planet. What ever  system a person is drawn to can sometimes be just the key to unlock whatever has been held within.  It can be done in a very slow and gentle way. Deep trust between the practitioner,( whatever modality,) and the person can in itself be the beginning. The crippling and incapacitating disharmony of the nervous system, can be rectified, once the person can be directed and guided on their path to wellness.

Useful reading material When Panic Attacks-by the late Dr.Aine Turburdy, who’s gift was to guide people through their times of deep stress and anxiety. Sadly missed.


Kate Curtis is a registered nurse and midwife, and has her practice in Acupuncture, healing and herbalism in the Wexford Hills, near Gorey at Danu Lodge, and also operates from the Greystones Holistic Centre. She holds chigong meditation workshops, and teaches a weekly taichi class.