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Taking Control of Panic Attacks

Deactivating your brain's alarm system.

“Your heart is racing, you begin to hyperventilate, every nerve in your body is exploding — it seems you're about to die.” ~Sean Callebs

About six million American adults experience panic attacks in a given year.

Panic disorder is a real illness characterized by sudden attacks of terror, and physical symptoms including a racing heartbeat, sweatiness, weakness, or dizziness. The good news is panic disorder is highly treatable. The trick to overcoming panic is to do things differently the next time. After all, if you continue doing what you’ve always done, you’re going to continue getting the same results, right?

And while there’s no one-size-fits-all Calm Plan, the following steps can get you on the other side of anxiety:

1. Acknowledge the panic symptoms. This may seem counterintuitive since we’re programmed to avoid unpleasant situations. However, thought suppression — telling yourself over and again to stop thinking "I’m going to die!,” only increases anxiety. A preferred response is to recognize the uncomfortable feelings and remind yourself that you’re not in danger: “This panic thing seriously messes up my day. Although it’s scary and overwhelming, I’m safe.”

2. Stay in the fray. This step is especially challenging since one of the symptoms of panic is feeling like you’re going crazy. Because your brain’s amygdala (the area which controls the fear response) sends rapidfire signals preparing you to fight or flee, you’ll need to counteract these irrational impulses. Grounding strategies include feeling your feet on the ground, or your hands on the steering wheel, or bracing yourself against a wall. Of course, leaving is always an option, but try to stay in the situation until your rational mind returns.

3. Be “here.” People do not have panic attacks in the present. In reality, you’re reacting to a past action, or to a future event. Being mindful of the here-and-now will help you can take actions to calm down.

4. Act. Now that your mind and body are more calm and present, it’s time to consider actions for riding out this unwelcome wave. Here are a few:

  • Breathe slowly and deeply
  • Close your eyes to block out overwhelming stimulation
  • Drink water to cool down your body temperature
  • Do jumping jacks to get rid of excess energy
  • Challenge unhealthy thoughts
  • Count to 10

5. Repeat steps 1-4. Because panic attacks vary in duration and frequency, you may find yourself starting to calm down, only to meet another episode. “Here I go again — this isn’t working!” Remember that you are not your thoughts, or your uncomfortable feelings, and get ready for Round 2. Practice is the only way to ensure calm habits.

6. Test-drive reality. As scary as panic attacks are, your track record for overcoming panic is 100%. There’s always an end in sight, and you will reach the calm side eventually.

The most important tip of all is knowing you don’t have to be possessed by your past, or held hostage by the future. With intentional effort toward doing panic differently, you can rewire those synapses sending you into fight or flight mode. Even if your brain would like you to think differently.


Linda Esposito, LCSW is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, CA. Her latest project Wired for Happy, teaches intrepid mental wellness warriors how to rewire their brain so that positive emotions and healthy relationships take up more mental bandwidth. To learn about Team Happy, click here.

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