Exit and Support Network

How to Walk Yourself Through a Panic Attack 

Is there anything you can do this very minute to control panic? Anything you can do on your own that can offer rapid relief from the agony of pain and anxiety? Yes, there is!

The "quick tips" in this article are based on proven principals from the field of anxiety management and can be surprisingly effective, offering temporary relief to "tide you over" till you can seek out a more systematic attack on your anxiety. Use them the instant you sense the first curling sensation that says "panic" and you may even be able to stop your panic before it starts.

First and foremost, be aware that a panic attack can't hurt you. It isn't dangerous, and it doesn't mean you're crazy, no matter how it feels! In fact, panic attacks make biological sense--even though they may feel completely senseless.

You might think of your body's reaction to a minor threat as though it's a major emergency - the result of an exquisitely sensitive nervous system, possibly combined with early life experiences that may have taught you to overestimate the likelihood of danger in different situations.

During a panic attack, your body reacts as though you're in danger, releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline to prepare you to fight an unknown enemy--or to run for your life. This in turn produces a host of alarming sensations--a pounding heart, an urge to flee, difficulty thinking straight and feelings of impending doom.

The problem, of course, is that during a panic attack, the body's alarm system kicks in when it's not needed--not when you're facing an attacker, or a natural disaster, but when you're giving a talk in a course you're taking, or sitting quietly in the classroom. And though you may feel as though you will, you won't faint; you won't have a heart attack; you won't do something crazy or out of control. And you won't die. Reminding yourself of those facts can reduce the frightening sensations of panic.

Take a "Time out" and slow down. Slow your rate of breathing, slow your racing slow thoughts, your entire body, head to toe. Then slowly resume your previous activities.

When you panic, your body, your mind, your emotions--literally everything--speeds up. And you feel out of control. Deliberately reversing the process, starting with your head and moving downward from there, not only slows you down--the exact opposite of panic - it puts you back in charge.

Picture a person you trust, someone who believes in you, supports you and cares about your well-being. Now imagine that person is with you, offering encouragement. Panic attacks often reflect feelings of being alone, bereft and fearful of your ability to cope on your own. Remembering, and experiencing, the presence of another can relieve those feelings of abandonment. So let someone you trust "Take you by the hand"--and let your panic slip away.

If there are places available, take a stroll. If there are people available, talk with one of them. Better yet, do both!

Walking can help you "burn off" some of the excess adrenaline that is released when you become anxious. Talking with others can lift your spirits, refocus your energies positively and help you feel connected to the human race in a comforting, encouraging fashion. Try it--it really works!

Sit down and take several slow, deep breaths. Pretend your stomach is a balloon and inflate it to enormous dimensions. Take at least four seconds to inhale, through your nose, and at least four more to exhale, through your pursed lips, as though you're whistling. Continue this for several minutes, trying, as you do so, to consciously relax your muscles.

Anxiety leads invariably to rapid, shallow breathing--even when you're not aware of it. And that leads directly to many of the symptoms of anxiety--dizziness, confusion, numbness or tingling, in your hands and feet, trembling and muscle aches, even altered perceptions of reality at times.

The fastest, most foolproof strategy to eliminate the physical symptoms of intense anxiety is to alter your breathing--to slow it down and deepen it. In fact, use the method several times a day to keep anxiety low and prevent attacks from arising in the first place! [See offsite article: A Breathing Exercise to Calm Panic Attacks]

Occupy your mind with an absorbing task: outline the sociology chapter you just read for class tomorrow; put on you headphones and listen to that new CD everyone is talking about; start researching the paper that's not due for two more weeks! Or simply focus on the present, on concrete objects around you, making a game of noticing details of every object you see.

During a panic attack, your mind is consumed with catastrophic thoughts about what's happening to your body, or about imagined disasters to come. These catastrophic thoughts provide the fuel for further anxiety. To "de-fuel" anxiety, you need to interrupt the catastrophic thoughts. Distracting yourself by thinking about something else is one way to do that. [See: Cognitive Behavioral Focusing for Exiters]

Listen to music, phone a close friend, invent a delicious daydream, recall a happy time in your life in great detail--anything to focus your mind on what's happening in the environment rather that on your body; on what's happening in the present rather than in the future; on something other than disaster. You'll interrupt the spiraling of anxiety and can eliminate, sometimes even prevent, the symptoms of a full-blown panic.

Picture a relaxing scene using all of your senses. Now put yourself into the scene. Involving yourself in a relaxing image calms your body, relaxes your mind--and helps put an end to the symptoms of panic. Making the scene as vivid as possible, by using all five senses and by putting yourself into it, simply adds power to this panic-busting strategy.

Take a giant yawn and stretch your body head to toe. A yawn and stretch is another way to interrupt your rapid breathing and escalating symptoms. The yawn literally forces air into the lower 25% of your lungs, and the stretch releases the tension in you muscles. After a good yawn and stretch, you can "start fresh."

Bring to mind the image of a person you admire and imagine yourself thinking as they might think, acting as they might act, even feeling as they may feel.

This strategy will lighten your spirits, inspire feelings of strength and comfort, and help you focus on something more adaptive than your fear. It's a powerful combination, far more positive than panic.

If unfamiliar situations increase your anxiety level, as they do for many panic sufferers, try to prepare for new situations in advance; review how you'll handle an uncomfortable social situation "in your head" before you actually encounter it. You'll have an easier time of it, and you'll be far less likely to experience panic.

Practicing difficult situations in advance is known to reduce anxiety. In fact, formal treatment for panic attacks often involves exposing yourself gradually and repeatedly to selected situations, or to specific sensations of panic. While it's beyond the scope of this brochure to describe that form of treatment in detail, a counselor trained to treat anxiety, or a soundly-based self-help book such as Master Your Panic and Take Back Your Life can guide you through the process.

Recall the time you handled a similar situation well, or try to bring to mind a past success and the good feelings you experienced at that time.

Let your own confidence emerge and help you put panic right back where it belongs--out of your life.

Get mad. Vow not to let panic win this time. You deserve better.

A strong competing emotion can often drive out panic; you simply don't have "room," or energy, for both. In fact, there's some evidence that suppressing anger and other strong emotions, like grief, can evoke panic; becoming more aware of feelings, by contrast, can send it packing.

So talk with a counselor, confide in a friend or family member, perhaps start writing about your feelings in a personal notebook. Find a private place to express your reactions to your new life, and watch panic depart.

Count backward from 20 and with every number, picture a different image of someone you love, something that pleases you, something that calms you. These might be images you recall from the past, or those you only imagine. This strategy, too, not only refocuses your attention, it boosts upbeat, secure feelings--a wonderful antidote to panic.

Remind yourself that a panic attack always subsides. Always.

No one can sustain intense levels of panic indefinitely. Panic attacks are anguishing to experience, but they will subside, even without any specific action on your part. But seeking assistance, reading more about panic and using these strategies can help you to overcome your attacks more rapidly and with far less misery.

So pick a strategy, try it out today and send your panic packing!

~Excerpted from, Master Your Panic and Take Back Your Life: Twelve Treatment Sessions to Overcome High Anxiety, by Denise Beckfield, Ph.D. (Impact Publishers, Inc., 1994)

The book includes a special section, "Everyday Anxieties" which applies the principals of anxiety management to more generalized anxiety and to situation-specific fears.

NOTE: It is important to understand that, after exiting an abusive, high demand group you may be suffering from complex post traumatic stress disorder, and any therapist you have should be knowledgeable with this condition. They should also understand (or are willing to educate themselves on) thought reform and manipulation techniques that were used and the after effects.


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