"Butterfly thoughts" are the triggers for panic attacks.
Fear usuallly has a visible trigger: a secure job that suddenly looks in jeorpardy, a task that looks too hard to do, an attacker on a dark street all indicate immediate danger. Panic attacks by contrast seem to come out of nowhere. If you have a panic attack, what therefore can you do? The answer may seem odd: Think about butterflies.
What could butterflies have to do with panic attacks?
Imagine the flight path of a butterfly. Butterflies zig and zag rapidly. They dart so quickly into and away from your vision that they are difficult to track.
Just before a panic attack, a thought has briefly darted in and out of your mental vision.
You glimpsed or heard a troubling butterfly thought. Then before you could catch and consciously think about it, Zap!, you were flooded with adrenalin.
As anxious sensations then flooded your being, they blocked your awareness of what the butterfly had been telling you. You were left just with a nauseatingly frightened feeling, a lightness in your head, and a pounding heart. Frightening ideas like "Is this a heart attack?" or "Am I going crazy?" may clatter in your thoughts, but the butterfly thought has flitted afar, no longer in sight or hearing.
No problem. Here's the game plan.
First step, as soon as you realize what has happened, pause to let the adrenaline flood metabolize. Suggest to yourself to relax the muscles in your arms legs, and face. Breathe a few deep breaths. Or put yourself in a frontal-occipital hold to make the overdose of adrenaline dissipate more quickly. Holding one palm on your forehead and the other against the lower rear of your head can speed up the calming process so that you can start thinking again.
Now you're ready for a butterfly hunt.
Close your eyes. Look and listen back to recall the last image or thought that darted through your mind before the anxiety welled up. When you find the butterfly trigger, you will have found a key to solving the panic attack mystery.
Here's butterfly-thought examples from panic attacks experienced by folks I've worked with.
Bill's financial panic
As Bill relaxed enough to recapture his butterfly thought, he recalled thinking, "What if I've taken too much risk this time?"
Bill had been thinking about the new entrepreneurial venture he'd so confidently launched. The new restaurant had all the right ingredients like location, a great chef, upbeat decor, the latest in culinary trends. At the same time, the loan he'd taken out for the business was huge, the interest rate high, and the rent on his space was more than he'd hoped to have to pay. He had just read yet another gloomy newspaper article on businesses that were folding in these economic times. That's when the butterfly had fluttered in....
Jeffrey's restaurant panic attack
Jeffrey's last thought before his panic surge had been a visual observation. He was in a restaurant, walking with a friend as they were being shown to their table. A bright red spot on an abstract painting on the wall had caught his eye.
Thinking back about that red color, a connection suddenly clarified itself to him. The red color was the same red as the high-heeled shoes his mother had been wearing the prior evening. They had been talking, sitting together in the living room. Jeffrey found her mother so difficult to talk with that at one point he felt enraged. He felt a powerful urge to haul off verbally, to tell his mom he never ever wanted to see her again, and even to punch her. The red on the painting reminded her of how frightened he had felt then of losing control of himself.
Janet's Safeway panic attack
Janet's last thought before her panic attack was "I'm going into the Safeway." The Safeway is a grocery store. What could be so frightening about going into the grocery store? As she focused on the word Safeway, her fear suddenly came clear. Janet had thought that by turning down a job offer with a new startup company and instead taking a job at a more boring but established company she had been taking "a safe way." Now her employer was considering closing the company. Her choice of jobs had not been a safe pathway after all.
Barbara's grocery aisle panic attack
Barbara also had a panic attack in a grocery store. She entered the store and thought, "That's the aisle I need to walk down." Her fear? Her butterfly thought had metaphorically expressed her anxieties about "walking down the aisle," that is, about her forthcoming marriage. Had she chosen someone who would be right for her? What if the marriage proved to be painfully mistaken, as her parents' marriage had been for them?
Jeffrey, Janet and Barbara all succeeded in identifying the butterfly thoughts that had induced emotional overdrive reastions. In each case, once they understood the thought that had triggered their panic attack, they felt a major sense of relief. The butterfly thought had clarified a genuine life dilemma. With the source of their anxiety now clear, thinking about what to do about the real problem could begin.
Thank you to butterflies!
Susan Heitler, PhD is a Denver clinical psychologist and author of multiple publications including The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.