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Understanding Panic

Do you sometimes have sudden attacks of overwhelming fear that last for several minutes? Does your heart pound or you feel like you can’t breathe or think? Do these attacks occur out of the blue with no obvious trigger, causing you to worry about the likelihood of having another one?

Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of impending doom or of losing control even when there is no real danger. A person may also have a strong physical reaction during a panic attack, which may include symptoms such as a chest pain, nausea, choking sensations, or a fear of dying.

Panic attacks are the body’s “fight-flight-freeze” response kicking in. This response gets your body ready to defend itself when there is a perceived threat (for instance, your heart beats faster and your muscles tense to provide your body with extra energy, speed, and strength).  During a panic attack, the fear response is out of proportion for the situation. Your body reacts when there is no real danger.

Panic attacks can cause you to withdraw from work, family, and enjoyable activities. Many people suffering from panic attacks don’t know they have a real and highly treatable disorder.


Conquering the Attacks

  1. False alarms.  The first step in overcoming panic is to recognize that this response is a false alarm and that it will not harm you.  
  2. Relaxation strategies are a useful stress management tool. com offers helpful relaxation guides for calm breathing and muscle relaxation. However, please note that relaxation alone will rarely cure anxiety. Relaxation Strategies
  3. Coping bag. It can be tough to remember how to challenge scary thoughts when we are anxious. Making a coping card that includes realistic thoughts and facts about panic attacks that you can carry with you can help you during an attack. You may also want to keep items on hand that you find helpful during an attack (e.g., a protein-based snack, water, stress ball, coping statements).
  4. Avoid smoking, alcohol, and caffeine.These may provoke panic attacks in people who are susceptible.
  5. Restful sleep.Inadequate or poor quality sleep can make anxiety worse, so try to get seven to nine hours of restful sleep a night.
  6. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). A psychologist utilizing CBT will help you identify the irrational thoughts that coincide with your panic as well as understanding the underlying causes for your attacks. You will also learn different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to the thoughts and feelings that arise with a panic attack.
  7. Exposure. One of the most important steps in overcoming panic is to confront your anxiety. This includes: Unpleasant physical sensations associated with panic attacks; Avoided situations, places, or activities.

Gradual and repeated exposure to the physical sensations of panic in a safe and controlled environment with a skilled psychologist will give you the opportunity to learn healthier ways of coping. With each exposure, you become less afraid of these internal bodily sensations and feel a greater sense of control over your panic. This also gives you a chance to see that your fears do not come true (for example, you don’t pass out or lose control).


Overcoming panic is a lot like exercise – you need to “stay in shape” and practice your strategies regularly, even after you have reached your goals.