I am in love with a man who has recurring panic attacks. He and I have been dating for several months and only recently did he share this information. He only told me because he was having a panic attack episode when we were on a date and he had no choice but to explain what was happening. He says he is embarrassed and afraid that I had to see him that way and is now struggling with being in our relationship. I have done my (Google) research so I know what these attacks are and how they work. I can honestly say I’m not afraid of them or of having a relationship with someone who suffers from them. He is still pushing me away. I don’t know what to do.
— Committed to Him
I am happy that you have done your research and hope you have learned that panic attacks are both very common and quite misunderstood — even by those suffering from them. For those who haven’t been so educated, a quick primer: Panic attacks may present a variety of symptoms including trembling and shaking, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, dizziness and a feeling of being out of control or dying. They may begin out of nowhere and without warning signs. The symptoms are similar to other major medical conditions, so it is important to see a medical provider if you are unsure what is happening.
The good news is that while panic attacks feel terrifying and uncontrollable, most subside after about 10 minutes. One of the most difficult aftereffects may be the debilitating fear that you will have another panic attack. The best treatment usually combines behavioral therapy and medication.
To me, the content of your question — the fact that he has panic attacks — is less important than the process his condition has revealed: he pushes you away after showing you his vulnerability. This is not an unusual dynamic, mind you, but what you do next is important. It may feel like he doesn’t trust you when he tells you he is struggling with how to move forward, but take heart. In expressing his concerns, he is, in fact, bringing you even closer.
Being vulnerable in front of your partner is both painful and necessary to strengthen the bond between you. Please be patient. Make sure he knows you support him and, if it fits, tell him you value the trust he has shown by letting you know him better through this experience. Set your personal research aside and tell him you want to be helpful in whatever way works best for him. If you can avoid pathologizing this situation, you can lay the groundwork for more emotional sharing — the ultimate purpose of love relationships.
Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor in Georgetown. Visit her on the web at stacymurphylpc.com. This column is meant for entertainment only and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Send your confidential question to firstname.lastname@example.org.