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How to Conquer Panic in Three Easy Steps

Is "panic depression" touching your soul?

Imagine that you're feeling fine, minding your own business, when suddenly out of the blue you're gripped by an overwhelming sense of intense fear; you feel dizzy, your chest tightens, and you have trouble catching your breath. Your heart races, you shake, tingle, feel nauseous, and break into a cold sweat. Sounds like a heart attack, right?

Wrong! As surprising as it sounds, what has just been described is a classic panic attack. Panic attacks are often unpredictable, suddenly occurring, brief periods of intense fear associated with a variety of frightening physical symptoms. Many panic attack sufferers rush to the emergency room, convinced they have had a heart attack or a stroke.

Many people who have panic attacks are anxious that they really are suffering from an undiagnosed (usually catastrophic) medical illness. The symptoms described above (and many other negative sensations that accompany panic attacks) lead people to remain terrified that they are going crazy, stroking out, or are about to drop dead from a coronary. Thus, the first step in conquering panic is to accept that these terrifying thoughts are completely incorrect, and that the entire range of sensory discomfort associated with these episodes is in keeping with the simple diagnosis of uncomplicated, panic disorder.

In fact, as terrifying as it is, panic is actually a readily treatable condition that often responds to specific, cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) and only occasionally requires medication. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that panic attacks can be rapidly and effectively treated by specific psychological methods and that in most cases CBT works better than drug therapy.

In essence, CBT for panic has three important components. The first, as suggested above, is called cognitive re-labeling which involves learning to accept the frightening sensations of panic as non-threatening and controllable instead of potentially catastrophic and uncontrollable.

The second aspect of CBT for panic is to learn some relaxation techniques and especially corrective, diaphragmatic breathing methods that help restore one's regular physical state.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, gradual and repeated exposure to the actual feelings and sensations of panic helps to neutralize their emotional impact. This is usually done with an experienced therapist who can help trigger the panic, facilitate the corrective breathing process, and provide appropriate reassurance that no harm will happen during the therapeutic challenge.

So, if you have, or someone you care about has, panic attacks, don't suffer needlessly. If untreated, panic attacks often get worse and can lead to a condition known as "agoraphobia" (literally "fear of the marketplace"), an emotionally crippling anxiety disorder that results in ever-increasing patterns of avoidance and confinement. It's also possible for untreated panic to become complicated by clinical depression; a condition I call "Panic Depression."

Thus, if you have panic take the following action before panic has you!

• Seek help by contacting your family doctor or a qualified mental health professional.

• Learn to re-label the physical sensations of the panic as manageable and non-threatening instead of as catastrophic.

• Learn corrective breathing and relaxation.

• And learn to reduce panic symptoms by intentionally triggering them in controlled situations.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

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