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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