The 3-step approach guaranteed NOT to stop your panic attack
By Anthony Berrick | March 14, 2019
Panic attacks are scary but completely harmless. On the other hand, panic disorder is a psychological condition, involving a struggle with panic attacks, which can have a significant negative impact on an individual’s life.
There is no technique or intervention that can stop a panic attack (and no need for one anyway), but there is a great 3-step approach that you can use to let go of your struggle with panic attacks in order to conquer panic disorder.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden rush of anxiety and fear, often featuring strong physical sensations, that occurs without the presence of real danger.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the system developed by the American Psychiatric Association to classify mental health disorders.
In the DSM-5, a panic attack is characterized by four or more of the following private experiences (thoughts, feelings, sensations):
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.
- Trembling or shaking.
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering.
- Feelings of choking.
- Chest pain or discomfort.
- Nausea or abdominal distress.
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint.
- Chills or heat sensations.
- Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations).
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself).
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy.”
- Fear of dying.
A panic attack with fewer than four of the above experiences is called a limited-symptom panic attack. Panic attacks are also categorised as either ‘unexpected’ (appearing to occur with no obvious trigger) or ‘expected’ (associated with a specific fear). 1
Panic attacks are very common, affecting about 1 in 7 people around the world. Of those who have panic attacks, about two-thirds have recurrent attacks.2
Panic attacks are also completely harmless. Although they may be extremely unpleasant and frightening at the time, panic attacks themselves leave no lasting physical or psychological damage.
What is panic disorder?
While panic attacks themselves are not cause for concern, panic disorder is a psychological condition which can have a significant negative impact on somebody’s life, and benefits from behavioural therapy.
Panic disorder is defined as recurrent unexpected panic attacks that cause persistent concern or worry about additional panic attacks, and/or a significant maladaptive change in behaviour related to the attacks.1
The core feature of panic disorder is a struggle with panic attacks which gets in the way of a person’s ability to live effectively. In other words, it’s not the panic attacks themselves that cause panic disorder, but the person’s attempts to control them.
Thus, treating panic disorder effectively doesn’t involve eliminating panic attacks, but changing the way a person relates to their private experiences (thoughts, feelings, sensations) so that they can get out of a self-defeating struggle with them.
The prevalence of panic disorder is much lower than panic attacks, affecting about 1 in 60 people worldwide.2
The 3-step approach
Fact: panic attacks always come to a natural end and there is no intervention required on your behalf to stop a panic attack.
Zero steps are required to bring your panic attack to an end. Let me say that again. You don’t need to do anything to stop a panic attack.
In fact, the more you attempt to intervene to control your panic attack, the scarier it will feel. But it will still come to a natural end. You couldn’t make a panic attack go on indefinitely, no matter how hard you tried.
Mastering panic disorder is about coming to terms with the fact that there’s no such thing as mastering panic attacks. By giving up on the goal of controlling your panic attacks, you can focus on the things you can control, like how you want to go about living your life.
So, instead of getting into a self-defeating struggle with your unwanted private experiences (thoughts, feelings, body sensations), try this 3-step approach that I guarantee will NOT stop your panic attacks (but might make your life better).
Step 1. Be present
- Observe your unwanted private experiences (thoughts, feelings and sensations) even though they may be scary or distressing.
- Turn towards them and try to examine them with genuine curiosity. Stop running from them or trying to block them out.
Step 2. Open up
- Make room for your unwanted private experiences. Accept them. You can’t change them anyway.
- Allow them to be just as they are. Stop trying to control them or push them away. Let go of your struggle. Be patient.
Step 3. Do what matters
- Be kind to yourself. This is a scary experience and it isn’t your fault. Getting pissed at yourself is a normal reaction that lots of people have, but it's rather pointless.
- Use encouraging self-talk (like “you can do this”) rather than reassuring self-talk (e.g. “you’ll be fine”).
- Be bold and courageous. Take your feelings of panic with you as you live your life to the fullest. Don’t wait for them to go away before you start doing what matters to you.
1. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). Washington, DC, United States: American Psychiatric Publishing.
2. De Jonge, P. et al (2016). Cross-national epidemiology of panic disorder and panic attacks in the world mental health surveys. Depression and anxiety, 33(12), 1155-1177.