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 #048
anxious man

Tip #4: Come Up with a New Thought

The thoughts that go through our heads - the cognitive symptoms we described a couple of weeks ago on the episode Am I Having a Panic Attack? are scary: "I’m dying, I’m going crazy, I’m going to pass out, I’m going to throw up and humiliate myself.”  The list goes on.

So when you feel panic starting to rise, talk back to your thoughts in a new way. One patient of mine made her new thought “I got this.”  Another thought of it as a smackdown between her and anxiety.  And a third decided on none other than “F--- you, anxiety!” Choose something that works for you.

Tip #5: Slowly Inch Into Panic Situations

One patient of mine had a panic attack in a fitness class and not only didn’t go back, but also stopped exercising entirely.  She wouldn’t even take the stairs.  She was worried that getting her heartrate up would induce another panic attack, something she never, ever wanted to experience again.  

So, to fight her panic she did two things.  First, she challenged the thought that her heart couldn’t handle exertion, and second, she started slowly getting her heartrate up, a little at a time, first by jogging a few steps, then by jogging a block, then around the block, and slowly, she got herself back to the gym.  

If it’s a place you fear, like being worried you’ll have a panic attack in a crowded movie theater, start by going to the theater and sitting as close to the exit as possible.  Next time, move up a couple rows.  Then move in a couple seats.  And so on.  Don’t move on to the next step until your current step is easy.  Remember: Your brain has to get bored.

Tip #6: Avoidance Feeds Panic

Think of a situation that makes you panicky - I’ll bet you white-knuckle it until you can’t stand it anymore, and then quit, which makes you feel better.  But consider this: While quitting does make you feel better in the short-term, it  also reinforces the idea that what you’re doing is dangerous.  

This makes sense if you’re feeling panicky about swimming with sharks while you have a nosebleed, but it doesn’t make sense if you’re feeling panicky about crossing a parking lot, sitting in a restaurant, or riding the subway.  You must be willing to endure a little anxiety - emphasis on little; never more than you’re ready for - so your brain can round the corner and start getting bored.  

Your anxiety will rise when you first try out something you’re scared of - remember our movie theater example or my patient who was scared of her heartrate?  Your anxiety should rise at first, in order to give you something to work with.  

But you don’t have to jump in with both feet.  Aim for inducing about a 3 on a 1-10 scale.  Experience the 3, and then wait it out.  Your anxiety might escalate to a 4 or 5 at first, but if you stick with it rather than quitting, it will go back to a 3, then a 2, and then a 1.  

Try it out.  Your brain will get bored, but you have to let it get over the hump. Then you can move on to the next step.  As you master more and more situations, even the things you thought would be 9s or 10s will start to look easier.  

Before you know it, you’ll be driving across bridges on windy days and sitting smack in the middle of a crowded restaurant - which is infinitely more fun than sitting in the emergency room with doctors telling you nothing’s wrong.


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Medical Disclaimer
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 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. 

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