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Boyfriend Has Panic Attacks Being in Relationships

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My boyfriend of six months suffers from panic attacks and/or anxiety when in relationships. (He told me about this early on, and that it’s happened in every relationship previously.) He’s talked to people about relaxation techniques, etc. to help when it does happen, and is wonderful about reassuring me it’s not me personally, and desperately wants this to go away and is willing to work on it, but as we get closer (and we are very close…closer than either of us have been with others), they seem to be coming more often (even when we’re not together). The effect is that he feels like he needs to get away from me–the “flight” response.

He’s not sure if he had a trauma as a child (mentioned in passing that something “might have happened with a babysitter” but that he can’t remember anything specifically, and that his parents were, separately, controlling (mother) and not very present (father). For what it’s worth, they were also very orthodox Catholic.

It seems to me that there is something (trauma, inciting event, conditioning, etc.) at a cellular level that’s telling his body that relationships/love are unsafe; hence the flight response. I’d love your thoughts. Regardless, we are uncertain about what to do to stop this from happening, or at least to minimize the effects, as it’s starting to cause issues with me now too, in terms of how I should act with him. And unfortunately, we’re getting mixed messages: a guy he met at some counseling men’s weekend some years ago, who, while not a therapist, is someone my boyfriend feels comfortable talking to and confident in heeding advice from because he apparently has the same issues, is saying to take things very slow and not push himself to stay with me in the moment if he’s feeling panicy, and that eventually, over time, the panic will go away (though it’s never in the past), and a PsyD I know says the opposite, that less time together or leaving the situation when he becomes anxious will only make the anxiety worse in the future. So he should stay in the situation, manage the anxiety, and learn different ways to think about it, so that over time his body will decondition to the flight response.

Any thoughts you have would be much appreciated. Thank you. (From the USA)

Boyfriend Has Panic Attacks Being in Relationships

Answered by on -

A.

I am going to go right to the heart of the manner by offering some thoughts about this situation, but want to suggest that your boyfriend see a cognitive behavioral therapist to take care of the mechanics behind unraveling this. That being said, let me offer you my thoughts and experience.
In treating panic attacks like this I find it extremely helpful to first identify what the panic attack is for the person. It has always been a fear of loss, separation or death that has been promoting it. It is the fear of losing something that generates the panic and in more cases than not the fear is a type of separation anxiety. My best guess is that the fact that they are getting worse as you come closer is very telling. It isn’t about the anxiety of becoming more intimate. It is likely to be about the anxiety of losing the intimacy. The closer you get to what you want — the more you fear losing it.

That having been said, the mechanics of how to slow down the reaction and keep it at bay are best carried out with a qualified cognitive-behaviorial therapist. The research on its effectiveness in treating panic attacks is good. The Find Help tab at the top of the page can help you find a therapist with that specialty in your area.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan
Proof Positive Blog @ PsychCentral

Boyfriend Has Panic Attacks Being in Relationships

Daniel J. Tomasulo, PhD, TEP, MFA, MAPP

Dan Tomasulo Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP teaches Positive Psychology in the graduate program of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College and works with Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the New York Certification in Positive Psychology for the Open Center in New York City and on faculty at New Jersey City University. Sharecare has honored him as one of the top 10 online influencers on the topic of depression. For more information go to: http://www.dare2behappy.com/. He also writes for Psych Central's Ask the Therapist column and the Proof Positive blog.

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Boyfriend Has Panic Attacks Being in Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 18, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2017/08/25/boyfriend-has-panic-attacks-being-in-relationships/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 May 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 May 2018
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