Investigating the invisible cord
: an analytical autoethnography of first panic attack

  • Michael Stephenson-Huxford

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The phenomenon of panic is one of the most unedifying experiences to inflict the human con dition. It is
    a globally-recognised problem regularly encountered in psychotherapeutic practice. Whilst it is thought
    that distressing psychological and social (‘psychosocial’) problems might help account for this
    experience, the precise role they play - particularly in first onset - remains difficult to fathom. For
    example, whilst there is evidence to suggest that stress related to an individual’s family and work life,
    marital circumstances, age and gender appear linked with initial episodes of panic, these and many
    associated stressors people endure remain largely under-researched.
    Following an inquiry aim that recognises the social construction of reality, this research offers an insight
    into my first experience of panic attack (my being both a panic sufferer and psychotherapist). The aim
    was to identify an ‘invisible cord’ (e.g. a series of causally linked stressful life events) related to my
    panic. These events are typically thought to be found in the twelve months prior to first onset and hold
    important clues to an individual’s recovery. Hence my research question was: ‘What sense can be made
    of the invisible cord of events leading to my first experience of panic attack’? Using analytical
    autoethnographic methods to guide this research, significant personal events were discovered and are
    presented here in the findings. The earliest events uncovered would stretch back far longer than twelve
    months; with a series of five scenarios plotted from childhood to my mid-forties.
    To ensure that this research remained an exercise in critical thinking, each event was then examined
    alongside broader psychosocial theory and frameworks; offering a connected analysis of this first attack
    and contingent factors. A summary follows, ‘pulling together’ aspects of this undertaking and offering
    implications for practice. For example, having only made visible elements of my stressful cord by
    means of the analytical methods at my disposal (including use of collage and timelines) I suggest that
    such tools might routinely help other panic sufferers in retracing their past. Equally, in learning that my
    (often confused) Christian faith was implicated in this panic, I advance that we, as therapists, must
    remain vigilant to matters of client spirituality: noting that traditional forms of religious guidance are
    receding in an increasingly sceptical UK society. The thesis concludes with a personal reflection t hat
    aims to facilitate a deeper understanding of my research journey.
    Date of AwardOct 2018
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Brighton
    SupervisorDiane Waller (Supervisor)


    • panic attack
    • invisible cord
    • social construction
    • analytic autoethnography

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