By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated June 22, 2012)
Staying within an increasingly narrow comfort zone maintains anxiety and increases the likelihood of panicking in unfamiliar situations. Expanding your comfort zone a little each day or week is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety and conquer panic disorder.
Reduce Safety Behaviours
Safety behaviours include sitting near exits, carrying tranquillizing medications everywhere, sitting down or holding onto something at the first sign of dizziness, and any other activity done in the hope of warding off panic. However, these behaviours can reinforce anxiety reactions. Reducing safety behaviours, though stressful in the short run, usually decreases anxiety in the long run.
Escaping from situations when panicky symptoms threaten is a common safety behaviour. However, this can lead to the development of agoraphobia. If you’re in a situation where you experience anxiety, try to stay put, as escaping can make the anxiety worse in the future. However, if you do have a bad day and give in to the need to run, don’t beat yourself up about it as that won’t do any good. Instead, make it your goal to go back into the situation as soon as possible to face the fear so that it doesn’t increase its grip over you.
Do What You Fear
Doing what you fear will inoculate you against panic over time, much in the way a vaccine delivers a small dose of a virus to help you develop immunity to the disease. Anxiety sufferers invariably make great strides by moving through their fears and coming out victorious on the other side.
When facing your fears, start with the least-feared situations and work your way up. As you build upon a multitude of small victories, you’ll develop the confidence required to face increasingly larger challenges.
One key element in expanding your comfort zone is the use of paradox, which has proven highly effective in reducing panic attacks. One paradox technique involves deliberately triggering an attack, generally by facing a feared situation, and then using coping techniques to overcome the fear. It sounds awful, but a big part of conquering anxiety is eliminating its power of you, and this usually requires facing it head on at some point. For more on this, see When Panic Attacks by David D. Burns, MD and the paradox strategies provided by Dr. Reid Wilson . If you’re unable to make yourself do this, you could try the gentler method of systematic desensitization, which involves building up to exposure with support at each step along the way.
Keep Challenging Yourself
Try to do things that are a little bit more difficult each time, working your way up. You’ll surprise yourself with how well you cope, and with each new victory over your fears, you will grow stronger.
If you do have a relapse, don’t let it get you down – progress in anything worth doing tends to be difficult – it’s often two steps forward, one step back, but it’s still an upward trajectory. Remember, if you have a bad day, it’s just one day.
Also keep in mind that a relapse can be a good learning opportunity. Try to figure out what might have caused it, and what you could do differently to prevent another relapse in the future.
If you keep challenging yourself, you’ll be far less likely to suffer a relapse. So keep identifying new challenges – little goals that you can work toward. And plan small rewards for each goal achieved – a new book, a treat, an outing with friends, a movie, a long bubble bath – whatever you enjoy.
Desensitize Yourself to Panic Attack Symptoms
It can be beneficial to actually practice bringing on some of the symptoms of an attack (dizziness, rapid heart rate, etc.) to learn that these symptoms won’t lead to heart attack, fainting, loss of control, going crazy, or other feared outcomes. This process, called panic induction, is commonly used by cognitive-behavioural therapists to treat patients with panic disorder.
Dr. Edmund J. Bourne (2000), author of The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, suggests doing one of the following to induce panic:
- Hyperventilating for a couple of minutes
- Spinning in a desk chair for a minute
- Holding your nose and breathing through a straw for a minute
- Climbing stairs for a minute and a half
- Spinning in a desk chair for 30-60 seconds
Do these activities in an environment where you feel safe, preferably with a therapist or a supportive family member or friend who can help you work through the fear. Use coping strategies such as realistic thinking to deal with the panic symptoms as they arise.
Doing one or more of these techniques daily trains your mind and body not to overreact to harmless panic symptoms, and will give you confidence in your ability to avert attacks if you do experience panic symptoms in the future.
Panic induction techniques are safe for most people, but there are some exceptions. Check with a doctor before doing these techniques, particularly if you have a condition that could make them problematic, such as asthma, epilepsy, heart or lung disease, pregnancy, or other medical issues.
Build Your Confidence
Increasing your confidence will strengthen you against anxiety and panic. There are a number of ways to build confidence. In addition to the comfort-zone expansion strategies listed above, working on assertiveness can be beneficial.
Physical exercise is another good confidence builder. In addition to being as effective against anxiety as medication and psychotherapy (Painter, 2010), it increases confidence, self-esteem, and an overall feeling of well-being, as well as improving physical appearance and health. For more on the benefits of exercise for anxiety, see the main Exercise page.
More Anxiety Reduction Strategies
For a full list of natural anxiety and panic therapies, visit the main Panic and Anxiety Treatments page.
- Bourne, Edmund J., PhD. (2005). The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
- Dryden-Edwards, R., MD (Author), Conrad Stoppler, M., MD (Editor). (2010, 25 March). “Panic Attacks.” EMedicineHealth.com.
- Leahy, R.L.; Holland, S.J.F.; & McGinn, L.K. (2000). Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders. The Guilford Press.
- Painter, K. (2010, April 26). “Exercise Helps Fight Anxiety, Depression.” USA Today, USAToday.com.
- Smith, M., MA; Segal, R., MA; & Segal, J., PhD. (2012, January). “Therapy for Anxiety Disorders.” HelpGuide.org.
- Whitfield, G., & Davidson, A. (2007). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Explained. Radcliffe Publishing Ltd.
- Wilson, R., Dr. (n.d.). “Panic Attacks.” Anxieties.com.