Dr. David Henderson

Panic Attacks

Tips for Keeping Control
August 02, 2010
David Henderson

Many people suffer from panic attacks. They can be overwhelming and debilitating. Here are a few tips I have found helpful in maintaining control when you feel like you’re losing it:

  1. First, recognize that what you are having is a panic attack. This sounds simplistic but many people fear that they are having something worse – like a heart attack. I always recommend that people get routine physicals yearly. If you’ve checked out okay, then the symptoms you are experiencing are likely to be a panic attack and PANIC ATTACKS ARE NOT LIFE-THREATENING! Realizing this can be a major asset in maintaining control.
  2. Once you recognize that this is a panic attack, realize that it WILL pass! It may take 30 minutes, it could take a whole afternoon but it will go away eventually. The scariest part for most people is feeling like it will never resolve. If you’ve got plans or things you have to get done, try lowering your expectations for yourself, do what you can, and cover the rest at a later time.
  3. Identify the triggers. I know that in general, panic attacks are thought to come on suddenly without any precipitating triggers. I am convinced, however, that sometimes an unconscious trigger exists. Is it the thought of meeting someone you don’t know, a looming project you’re dreading, or maybe there are a number of stressors that have piled on top of each other? Whatever it is, break the situation down into smaller, more manageable pieces and deal with each one reasonably and rationally.
  4. Minimize the tendency to catastrophize – People with panic attacks usually have a sense of impending doom but don’t exactly know why or where it is coming. They may catastrophize a situation, blowing it out of proportion. In these instances, it is important to follow the thought out to completion. “I am anxious that when I meet this person something bad is going to happen.” “Okay, what will happen.” “Well, they will think I’m an idiot.” “Okay, and what will happen if they think you’re an idiot.” “Well, they might not want to talk to me again.” “And this bothers you why?” – Remember, be reasonable in the conclusions you draw. Ask yourself what is the likelihood that what I am imagining will happen will actually happen. Then ask yourself if you can handle it. Nine times out of ten, you can. It is the fear of the unknown that overwhelms us most.
  5. Get others involved – one of the scariest things about having a panic attack is that you will be noticed. The way to get around this is to preempt the discovery by sharing your struggle. I’m not talking about announcing it to the whole world, but make sure that the people you are closest to – i.e. your small group, a few close colleagues etc. know so that they can help and support you. this requires swallowing your pride, but it helps. We are relational beings meant to relay on others when time get tough. Use the support network available to you.

Question: What techniques have you found most helpful in overcoming Panic Attacks?