One of my favorite types of clients to work with are clients who present with chronic panic attacks also known as panic disorder. I enjoy working with panic disorders because I get to help clients deal with a highly debilitating anxiety disorder. Panic attacks happen when a person’s anxiety symptoms become so intense that they are no longer able to tolerate their anxious symptoms. The symptoms of panic attacks can be so intense that people may feel like they are losing control of their bodies or may believe that they are having a medical emergency such as a heart attack. A simple way of thinking about panic disorder is that it is fear of becoming anxious due to the concern that the anxiety symptoms may spiral out of control. Many people who deal with panic disorder often avoid people, places, things, or situations they feel might cause them to panic.
The mental mistake we make:
When we experience panic episodes, we make a mental error known as layered catastrophic thinking. Layered catastrophic thinking occurs when one negative catastrophic idea leads to another that is much more terrible and disastrous. For example, a person may first be concerned that their heart is racing rapidly. They may then have the fear that if their heart rate continues to rise, they will acquire additional unwelcome nervous symptoms such as lightheadedness and difficulty breathing. If they begin to feel lightheaded and have difficulty breathing, their thoughts may grow into the belief that they will soon panic because of the symptoms they are experiencing.
The mistake we make with our behaviors:
People who are afraid of having a panic attack will catastrophize how their anxiety symptoms may worsen through the process of catastrophic layered thinking. To keep anxious symptoms from worsening or growing into a panic attack, most individuals will typically avoid whatever they feel is causing their worry so that their symptoms do not escalate into a panic attack. The problem we make with our behaviors is that by avoiding things that make us nervous, we reinforce in our minds that we are unable to handle our anxious feelings.
Avoiding what causes us anxiety has two negative consequences when it comes to panic attacks. First, avoiding what makes us anxious develops a false belief in us that anxiety symptoms eventually lead to panic attacks. Second, avoiding anxiety triggers reinforces in our subconscious that we are incapable of dealing with anxiety symptoms due to our chronic need to relive these symptoms. We all require a healthy amount of anxiety tolerance. Unfortunately, avoiding panic triggers on a regular basis lowers our ability to tolerate every day anxiety and without a healthy level of tolerance for anxiety, it is very difficult to overcome panic attacks.
Let’s Deal With Anxiety: Dealing with anxiety attacks in 5 steps:
When you first start to experience anxious symptoms that concern you, focus on the current symptoms you are having and refrain from predicting how your current anxious symptoms will worsen.
While focusing on your current anxious symptoms, close your eyes and tell yourself that you have felt these feelings before, and you know that you are capable of tolerating them.
Don’t fight your anxious symptoms. Rather, acknowledge that they feel uncomfortable, but then remind yourself that you are capable of tolerating the uncomfortable feeling.
The goal with this technique is to slowly start building back your tolerance for low & mid-level anxiety. Building tolerance for anxiety is the key to ending a panic cycle.
Being confident in your ability to tolerate low & mid-level anxiety means that you are less worried that those low & mid-level symptoms will spiral into a panic attack.