Cases That Test Your Skills

The avoidant psychotherapy patient

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Mr. J, age 35, seeks treatment for panic attacks. He takes a benzodiazepine and attends psychotherapy but comes once a month, and keeps sessions superficial. How can he be helped?



CASE: Unexplained panic

Mr. J, age 35, is a married, unemployed musician who presents for outpatient treatment for panic attacks. He experienced his first panic attack at his oldest son’s baptism 12 years ago, but does not know why it occurred at that moment. He rarely has panic attacks now, but wants to continue medication management. He denies depressive symptoms, saying, “I’m the most optimistic person in the world.” Mr. J tried several medications for his panic attacks before clonazepam, 2 mg/d, proved effective, but always has been vehemently opposed to antidepressants. Despite his insistence that he needs only medication management, Mr. J chooses to enroll in a resident-run psychotherapy clinic.

In sessions, Mr. J describes his father, who also has panic disorder, as a powerful figure who is physically and emotionally abusive, but also charismatic, charming, and “impossible not to love.” However, Mr. J felt his father was impossible to live with, and moved out at age 18 to marry his high school sweetheart. They have 3 children, ages 12, 10, and 8. Mr. J worked for his father at his construction company, but was not able to satisfy him or live up to his standards so he quit because he was tired of being cut down and emasculated.

Mr. J’s parents divorced 15 years ago after his mother had an affair with her husband’s friend. His father learned of the affair and threatened his wife with a handgun. Although Mr. J and his mother were close before her affair, he has been unable to forgive or empathize with her, and rarely speaks to her. Mr. J’s mother could not protect him from his father’s abuse, and later compounded her failure by abandoning her husband and son through her sexual affair. Growing up with a father he did not respect or get comfort from and sharing a common fear and alliance with his mother likely made it difficult for Mr. J to navigate his Oedipal phase,1 and made her abandonment even more painful.

When Mr. J was 6 years old, he was molested by one of his father’s friends. His father stabbed the man in the shoulder when he found out about the molestation and received probation. Although Mr. J knows he was molested, he does not remember it and has repressed most of his childhood.

The authors’ observations

I (JF) wanted to discuss with Mr. J why his first panic attack occurred during such a symbolic occasion. His panic could be the result of a struggle between a murderous wish toward his father and paternal protective instinct toward his son. The baptism placed his son in a highly vulnerable position, which reminded Mr. J of his own vulnerability and impotent rage toward his father. Anxiety often results when an individual has 2 opposing wishes,2 and a murderous wish often is involved when anxiety progresses to panic. Getting to the root of this with Mr. J could allow for further psychological growth.3 His murderous wishes and fantasies are ego-dystonic, and panic could be a way of punishing himself for these thoughts. When Mr. J identified himself as his son during the baptism, he likely was flooded with thoughts that his defenses were no longer able to repress. Seeing his son submerged in the baptismal font brought back an aspect of his own life that he had completely split off from consciousness, and likely will take time to process. Considering the current therapeutic dynamic, I decided that it was not the best time to address this potential conflict; however, I could have chosen a manualized form of psychodynamic psychotherapy for panic disorder.4 See Table 1 for an outline of the phases of psychodynamic psychotherapy for panic disorder.

Although Mr. J’s initial willingness to discuss his past was encouraging, he refused to schedule more than 1 session every 4 weeks. He also began to keep the content of our sessions superficial, which caused me angst because he seemed to be withholding information and would not come more frequently. Although I was not proud of my feelings, I had to be honest with myself that I had started to dislike Mr. J.

Table 1

Psychodynamic psychotherapy for panic disorder

Treatment of acute panicTherapy focuses on discovering the conscious and unconscious meaning of panic symptoms
Treatment of panic vulnerabilityCore dynamic conflicts related to panic are understood and altered. Tasks include addressing the nature of the transference and working through them
TerminationThe therapist directly addresses patients’ difficulties with separation and independence as they emerge in treatment. After treatment, patients may be better able to manage separations, anger, and independence
Source: Adapted from reference 4

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