A Technique for Overcoming Panic Attacks
We can try to overcome panic attacks by leaning into the fear.
Posted August 14, 2018
In my last two articles, I talked about the symptoms and mechanisms of panic attacks (intense and sudden episodes of fear). Today I would like to talk about managing the attacks.
As I tried to show in my previous post, panic attacks constantly fool us into believing that there is an imminent threat. Over and over again we find no such threat, and yet we are fooled anew each time. Why? Because we are unwilling to stay with the experience long enough to discover what will happen if we do not try to fight the threat or to escape from it.
The inclination to fight-or-flight is, of course, normal. We have been programmed to react to a larger number of situations and objects than the ones that actually pose a threat, because our existence is not a game that we can simply restart. We have only one Earthly life, so it makes sense to err heavily on the side of caution.
For instance, better mistake the revving of a powerful car engine for a lion’s roar nine times out of ten, than to be wrong that one time....Nonetheless, what if, to someone’s ears, nearly every noise sounded like the roar of a lion? This can have serious consequences.
People in such constant states of fight-or-flight, people who live their lives in survival mode, are more likely to develop certain kinds of illnesses (or experience a worsening of their current illness).1 Living in constant and intense fear is antithetical to health, happiness, and productivity.
Survival is about staying alive in the here and now—not living a long happy life.
In a lot of ways, a life of survival is a life of panic. The panic-stricken individual only wants to know whether an object is harmful/harmless, and is not interested in learning about the object’s nature, function, or mechanism of action.
But that broader and deeper interest may be precisely what is necessary to successfully manage panic attacks. That is, one needs to behave in ways that are inconsistent with a fearful and single minded focus on harm and survival. One needs to stay with the experience of fear, and examine it with interest, curiosity, and engagement.
This is why the self-help technique I would like to suggest to you—assuming that you have already made sure no medical or psychiatric condition is responsible for your attacks (as explained in my first article), is leaning into the fear.
Like the young woman in the above picture who is leaning in toward us as if she wants to hear or understand better, the goal is to lean into the fear you are experiencing, with a sense of wonder.
Leaning in, of course, does not mean you have to enjoy panic attacks. Nor is it the equivalent of jumping into fear (and thus losing all control); you remain grounded (i.e. oriented to the here and now) while leaning in.
Here is an example to further elucidate the mindset behind leaning in. Think of a scientist who has never seen lightning before. On a clear night, while driving to her house, she is surprised by flashes of lightning in the distance. The scientist calmly pulls her car over, then sits and waits patiently till the next flash of lightning appears. Over the next few minutes, she notes the color of these flashes, their frequency, location, and so forth.
The scientist also listens with interest, counting the seconds between seeing a flash of lightning and hearing the thunder, and noting the various characteristics of the thunder (e.g., its loudness, pitch).
Of course, while leaning forward with interest and curiosity, the scientist attempts, at the same time, to remain firmly grounded. Or else she would be overwhelmed by fear and confusion.
We need to adopt this same attitude, when we find ourselves caught up in our inner storms.
For those of you unable to relate to the lightning and thunder example, refer to other objects or situations in your personal life, ones that have really piqued your curiosity. Remember the quality of your attention and your attitude toward them. And bring them to mind while you are having an attack.
As you may have concluded by now, objectivity is an important tool for managing panic. By observing an experience objectively, you are able to approach, as opposed to avoid, what you fear; and as a result, you gain a new level of mental control over the situation.
One way to objectively observe a panic attack is to ask a lot of questions, such as:
- What am I feeling right now?
- What am I sensing in my body?
- How am I interpreting these feelings and sensations?
If the panic attack is particularly overwhelming, before asking the above questions you need to ground yourself. To do so, become aware of the present time and your present location. Some people find that naming, describing, or touching the objects around helps them become grounded.
Others prefer to focus on their breathing; but if you are hyperventilating and as a result find the attention to your breath more anxiety-provoking, concentrate on some other sensations in your body, preferably specific but unchanging ones (e.g., sensations in your feet).
Once you feel grounded, again lean in and observe how the phenomenon of panic and all the associated feelings, sensations, and thoughts, unfold. Report on what you see, and be as precise and as detailed as possible.
If you do this frequently enough, intense fear will begin to lose its hold on you, and panic attacks will become less intense and easier to manage.
The goal is to break down the nameless fear and the incomprehensible somatic changes, by naming and describing the experience; you might then realize that what you are feeling and sensing, though unpleasant, is understandable and familiar. For instance:
“I am feeling very afraid,” “I sense sweat running down my lower back,” “I sense my breathing rate speeding up,” “I feel very angry that the panic attack is happening again,” “I am having the thought that everything is out of control,” “I am having the thought that I am going crazy,” and so on.
When you lean in with curiosity and interest, identify and name what is happening, you may find that panic, like a magician running out of tricks, becomes less and less convincing and capable of pushing you into survival mode, and away from new experiences, closeness to your body, and living your life.
I hope you found today’s discussion helpful. In my next post, the last in the series, I will discuss one more way of managing panic attacks.
1. Segerstrom, S., & Miller, G. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 601–630.