By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 28 January 2015)
People who suffer from panic disorder often believe that they will die, go crazy, faint, or lose control when in the grip of a panic attack, or that the attack will go on forever. However, none of these things will happen in response to a panic attack.
Changing your thought processes can permanently change your brain in a way that makes you less prone to anxiety, which is why it’s so important to engage in more realistic and positive thinking (the ability of the brain to change in response to what we think, experience, and do is called neuroplasticity – see The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD, and Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Daniel G. Amen, MD, for more information on this phenomenon).
Challenging Faulty Beliefs
There are four types of faulty beliefs associated with panic attacks:
- Unrealistic Expectations or Assumptions – Assuming that an unlikely thing will happen or has already happened
- Catastrophic Thinking – Believing that a relatively minor event would actually be catastrophic
- Underrating Coping Ability – Assuming that you won’t be able to cope with any hardships that arise
- Self-Denigration – Considering yourself to be a loser, an idiot, or a coward because you have attacks or suffer from generalized anxiety
These faulty beliefs are challenged in the sections that follow.
A person in the throes of a panic attack might believe that he is suffering from some unlikely illness. For example, many healthy young people who experience panic attacks assume that they’re having heart attacks. People who are panicking often believe that they will go crazy, even though they have never lost their minds in the past during attacks and there is no evidence of anyone ever going crazy in response to a panic attack. In addition, many people who have had panic attacks without any physical consequences continue to fear that they will die each time it happens. However, according to Dr. Kim Maertz (2008) of the University of Alberta UHC-Student Counselling Services, “Panic attacks do not cause:
- Heart attacks
- Mental illness
- Respiratory failure
- Loss of balance
- Loss of bodily control
To challenge frightening thoughts associated with panic, ask yourself, “What am I afraid of? If the answer is “Going crazy,” then ask yourself, “Has this ever actually happened during a panic attack?” Then tell yourself, “It never happened before, to me or anybody else; therefore, it won’t happen this time.” Remember that panic attacks don’t kill anyone, make them go crazy, lose control, or even faint (fainting is triggered by a sudden blood pressure drop, whereas anxiety causes blood pressure to rise). A panic attack won’t physically hurt you – you just have to ride it out.
For other fearful beliefs, such as an airplane falling out of the sky, becoming trapped in an elevator, being murdered, the death of loved ones (who are not elderly or ill), or developing a rare disease, ask yourself: “How likely is this to happen, really?” The statistical probability of such things happening is very low. For example, many people fear that if they have a panic attack while driving, they will crash their cars, but have you ever read a news story about a crash caused by panic? Given the high number of panic sufferers, many of whom have attacks while driving, this should be common, yet I’ve never come across a news report linking a crash to panic disorder. Instead, crashes typically occur because people are too relaxed (drunk, sleepy, or overconfident).
Anxious people tend to overestimate the consequences if something unpleasant were to happen or they were to make a mistake. For example, you might believe that if you embarrass yourself in public and people laugh at you, it would be catastrophic (the reality is that when a person does something embarrassing, people may laugh briefly if they even notice at all, but will usually quickly forget the incident as they focus on their own concerns). Or you might think that the end of a relationship would be the end of the world, when it would really only cause a period of unhappiness that would pass, perhaps giving way to greater happiness later on when you realize that you have been freed from an emotionally unhealthy partnership.
Many anxious people also think that making an error would be devastating, but mistakes are simply learning opportunities – they can be analyzed to help you do things right the next time. This is why letting go of perfectionism is a key strategy for reducing anxiety.
To challenge the tendency to catastrophize, ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that would happen in response to the thing I fear?” (for example, public embarrassment, loss of a job, relationship ending, etc.). Have I faced similar situations in the past, and how did they turn out in the long run? How do other people cope with similar situations? Would this really be the end of the world, or just something that makes me feel sad or embarrassed for a while?”
Some experts recommend wearing an elastic band on your wrist and snapping it when you start to think catastrophic or panicky thoughts, as a signal to stop (you can shout “stop” in your mind at the same time). This disrupts your worry cycle before it can spiral into a full-blown anxiety attack. Once you stop the negative cycle, try to shift to more positive thinking.
Anxiety BC suggests making coping cards – realistic statements on index cards that you can take out and read as needed during panic attacks or other stressful events. Coping statements include, “It’s a hassle, not a horror” and “It will be over soon.” (See Anxiety BC in the reference list at the bottom of this article for a link to the full list.)
Underrating Coping Ability
People who suffer from anxiety tend to underestimate their ability to cope with danger, hardship, or emotional suffering (whereas excessively confident people may overestimate their abilities). Anxious people usually manage better than they believe they will when faced with the situations they fear, and facing those situations often extinguishes anxiety about them in the future.
Ask yourself, “If the feared thing happened, what then?” Instead of thinking about all the terrible feelings you would experience, imagine productive things you could do to cope in that situation. Many people who believe that they could not cope with particularly horrible life events not only manage, but find meaning in the event and ways to help others who are going through the same thing. This is not to say that they don’t suffer – they do – but they find ways to cope and to bring some good out of the experience.
In many cases, anxious people underrate their ability even to cope with the most ordinary day-to-day situations. This can lead to agoraphobia, which causes avoidance of more and more activities, in some cases to the point of becoming nearly or entirely housebound. For more information on facing fears and enhancing coping abilities in response to feared situations in day-to-day life, see Expanding Your Comfort Zone and Systematic Desensitization.
Lots of people have panic attacks, and they are not losers or cowards. If you’re thinking these things about yourself, imagine what you would say to a loved one who was going through what you’re going through. Why would you treat yourself so differently from this other person?
Anxious people often engage in all-or-nothing thinking. A setback or failure to meet a goal on one occasion is seen as a major failure resulting from a significant character flaw; however, it’s far more productive to view setbacks or failures as learning experiences. They don’t mean that you will fail in the future or that you have a weak nature; rather, they provide valuable data that can be used to increase the likelihood of future success. Instead of viewing a mistake or setback as a disaster and an indication of inability, it should be viewed as a practice run, a learning experience, and a source of information that can be used to support future successes.
Attitude Shifts That Reduce Anxiety
Anxiety expert Dr. Reid Wilson lists eight attitude shifts that can help to reduce the likelihood of suffering panic attacks:
- “I can’t let anyone know.”—>”I am not ashamed.”
- “Panic is evil, bad, the enemy.”—>”What can I learn as a student of panic?”
- “I want to avoid the symptoms.”—> “I want to face the symptoms to gain skills.”
- “I must relax right now.”—>”It’s OK to be anxious here.”
- “I must stay on guard.”—>”I won’t guard myself against anxiety.”
- “This is a test.” —> “This is practice.”
- “I must be certain (that there is no risk).”—>”I can tolerate uncertainty.”
- “This had better work.”—>”It’s OK if it doesn’t work.”
What many of these shifts have in common is that they move the thought process from fighting panic to accepting it, learning from it, and even using it as a tool for personal growth and increased understanding. What is your panic telling you about yourself? Is it pointing to areas of life or attitudes that require changing so that you can be happier?
Dr. Reid is the author of Don’t Panic, as well as an excellent online anxiety-reduction guide. For more detailed descriptions of these attitude shifts, see Anxieties.com.
For more ways to reduce anxiety and cure panic disorder naturally, see the main Natural Anxiety and Panic Treatments page.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical consultation. Those with health concerns should consult a qualified practitioner.
- AnxietyBC. (n.d.). “Self-Help Strategies for Panic Disorder.” “AnxietyBC.com
- Dryden-Edwards, R., MD (Author), Conrad Stoppler, M., MD (Editor). (2010, 25 March). “Panic Attacks.” EMedicineHealth.com.
- Maertz, K. (2014). “Panic/Anxiety Attacks.” University of Alberta, UWell.UAlberta.ca.
- Smith, M., MA; Segal, R., MA; & Segal, J., PhD. (2012, January). “Therapy for Anxiety Disorders.” HelpGuide.org.
- White, D.M., LMHC, CACP. (2011). “Accepting and Overcoming Anxiety.” PsychCentral.com.
- Wilson, R., Dr. (n.d.). “Panic Attacks.” Anxieties.com.