Commentary: Personal associations to current events can trigger anxiety

Aman comes into his weekly psychotherapy session filled with apprehension. He says the day before, while working at his computer, he had a panic attack soon after reading the news about the immigration ban.

He reports that his heart was beating wildly, he was sweating and had a strong fear of being unsafe. He felt dread for the next few hours, which only began to subside after taking some medication and trying to get a good night's sleep.

The man had no idea why reading about the ban brought up such a strong reaction. Anxiety was a symptom he typically had to confront, but full-blown panic attacks were few and far between. While he didn't like the restriction the ban placed on so many peoples' lives, he didn't think it affected him personally.

I suggested we look into his past to discover what he might be associating with current events. I remembered that his father had emigrated from Poland when he was young. But after his father had been here a few years, he wished to return home to visit his relatives. When he tried to get back into the United States, he had trouble with his visa and was detained at the border. It took weeks before his father was allowed to reenter the U.S., and the experience was traumatic enough for him to decide not to visit home again.

The man had not consciously made a connection between what he had so often heard from his father about this upsetting experience and the news of the immigration ban. But we suggested he was connecting his father's scary immigration experience with the news of the current ban. And that was what his panic attack represented.

Unconsciously, he knew that if it could happen to his father and now other immigrants, it could possibly happen to him. His panic was the reaction to this dread and uncertainty.

When we offered this interpretation, the man immediately changed physically and emotionally. His body relaxed, his face lit up, as he had an "aha!" recognition that this piece of his father's personal history was conditioning his strong reaction to the current news. And he had a new appreciation for how his past could impact him in the present without his even being aware of it.

Watch your own reactions to news events — especially ones that may impact you in some way. Notice when you have a strong, out of proportion response. Use this awareness of the strength of your emotion to ask yourself how your reaction may be triggered by memories of your past. When your reactions of fear, dread, anxiety, panic or a wave of depression can't be controlled due to frightening events, don't be afraid to reach out and get help.

DRS. STEVEN and DEBORAH HENDLIN practice in Newport Beach.

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