6 Ways to Deal with Panic Attacks

Your heart races, you feel lightheaded, your sweat glands work overtime - is this the end? Nope, it's a panic attack.  The Savvy Psychologist has 6 ways to fight this disabling disorder.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #48

Panic is no picnic.

You get hit with a tidal wave of fear, your body short-circuits, and you think this is the end - you’re either dying or going crazy.  In short, it’s a pretty awful feeling, and the 1 in 4 Americans who have experienced it often go for months or even years without knowing what panic is or what to do about it.  

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See also: What Is Panic Disorder?

Luckily, panic is straightforward to treat.  Working with a trained cognitive-behavioral therapist is best, but here are 6 methods you can try on your own:

Tip #1: Practice Having the Scary Sensations

I know, inducing symptoms is often the last thing folks with panic want to try, but hear me out on this one..

Interpreting the symptoms (a pounding heart, feeling lightheaded) as dangerous (“I’m dying!") throws fuel on the fire.  Symptoms snowball and over a matter of moments, you find yourself in the throes of a full-blown panic attack.

So, try inducing the very symptoms you’re afraid of, practice having them outside the context of an attack, and you’ll stop seeing them as dangerous.  You’ll learn that your body can handle a racing heart or a tight throat.  When you practice having your own symptoms, you’re always in control and you’ll get the chance to habituate, or, as I like to say, your brain will get bored.  

If you’re worried about a pounding heart, hop on the treadmill.  Terrified of feeling dizzy?  Sit in an office chair and spin around and around. Shortness of breath?  Breathe through a coffee stirrer.  Lightheadedness?  Crouch for a minute and then stand up quickly.  One of my patients was terrified of feeling overheated and decided to practice by hanging out in the always-too-hot copy room at his office.  It was brilliant and it worked like a charm.

Tip #2: Bring it On

This sounds weird, but with panic disorder, which is fear of having a panic attack, a little reverse psychology works wonders.  When you start to worry about panic or feel that first twinge, tell yourself “Hey body, I want more.  Bring it on!  Hit me with your best shot.”  

Ironically, being willing to feel panic symptoms will help to stop the cycle of escalation.  After all, panic is the fight or flight response gone haywire, so when you try to fight panic itself, you end up between a rock and a hard place and it all just amplifies exponentially.  By contrast, when you welcome in the sensations of fear, your body has no reason to fight or flee.

Tip #3:  Remember - It’s Just Anxiety, Not Reality

Panic is all in the interpretation.  Think of it this way: It’s 3am and the phone rings.  What happened?  Well, it could mean your sister is dead, your brother needs to be bailed out, or your teenager is in the emergency room.  But it could also mean a wrong number, a prank call, or someone who got their time zones seriously mixed up.  Until you pick up the phone, the reason for the call is a product of your interpretation.  

So it is with anxiety.  Instead of interpreting it as “I’m dying,” think, “This is just my broken burglar alarm.  I’ve felt this before.  I wasn’t dying then, and I’m not dying now.”  Interpret the anxiety not as something dangerous, but as something annoying you’ve handled before, and can handle again.  It’s just anxiety, not reality.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.