A longtime fan of this column emails about her boyfriend. They had been dating for several years, and as their relationship progressed, they began to discuss the possibility of moving in together. It was during those discussions that she began to notice a change in his behavior.
When she finally addressed the issue directly, the truth came out. He said that he would love to do it, but that he wanted her to first move in next door to his apartment “for a while.” She was horrified. He went on to explain that he was having panic attacks over sharing an apartment with anyone. She acknowledges that he’s overly fastidious and controlling. She now faces the prospect of having to move twice for no other reason than his panic over having to share space with somebody he supposedly loves. She asked me to elaborate on the idea of panic attacks.
The American Psychiatric Association describes a panic attack as a period of intense fear or discomfort in which symptoms develop abruptly, reaching their peak within 10 minutes. Symptoms can include (but aren’t limited to) palpitations, pounding heart, accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling, sensations of shortness of breath and a feeling of choking and/or chest pain.
Obviously, this is not a good thing, but why would someone experience panic attacks over the prospect of living with someone he loves? Isn’t love what everyone is seeking? Well, sure. But love also means other things, such as changing your daily habits to accommodate another person. For some people, that can be earth shattering.
People prone to panic attacks usually have a strong desire for control. This sort of anxiety is usually an indication that, “I feel like I’m not ready to change my lifestyle.” Note the word, “feel.” Just because you feel something doesn’t make it true. Feelings are like the warning lights that come on in your car. They might be an indication that something’s wrong, but just as often, they’re not.
Panic attacks that don’t stem from some physical issue most certainly have their root in irrational thinking, such as a fear of shutting out or losing other opportunities. I sometimes talk to people who say, “I don’t want to choose. If I choose one option, I shut out other options. How can I live with the possibility I might have made the wrong choice?”
That’s probably the issue with the boyfriend who, after years of being with one woman, suddenly develops panic attacks. He didn’t wake up one day and start disliking his girlfriend. The prospect of their moving in together triggered the realization that he had made his final choice.
How does anyone really know that there’s only one true love out there? Don’t get me wrong; I believe in romance, but we also have to be rational. The fact that you found someone you love (and who loves you back) doesn’t mean that neither of you could have ever found someone else you loved, or who loved you, just as much. It just means you’re fortunate that you found one other.
Panic attacks can be a symptom of what therapists call “commitment phobia”; a fear of having to commit to anything, especially relationships. Usually the sufferer will be overly critical of the other partner or will try to sabotage the relationship even if it’s going well.
Mental health and ethical behavior require one thing above all else: Self-awareness. If you’re self-aware, you take responsibility for your contradictory feelings rather than taking them out on someone else. For example, it’s a contradiction to WANT a relationship and, at the same time, to WANT the advantages of being single and unattached. Contradictions create conflict and discontent in our minds. If we take responsibility for discovering what they are and then correct them, we’ll spare ourselves – and those we love – a lot of pain.
Follow Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1, drmichaelhurd on Instagram.