The Road to Panic Recovery
If you have been in the grip of panic you likely feel trapped. You may even be experiencing depression, as panic can limit your life and rob you of your energy and motivation. Quite simply, it can prevent you from fully living your life.
The good news is that there is a path to relief. With knowledge and understanding as your road map, you can take steps that will lead you out of the panic vortex and toward the things in life that matter.
Panic will rob you of your joy, but the joy can be reclaimed. When it comes to treating panic, it is important to know your options.
The three main pillars of treatment are medication, therapy, and education. These can be used alone or in combination. Education encompasses an understanding of the important concepts related to anxiety, as well as learning skills that can help you to cope with your anxiety.
The three main pillars of treatment are medication, therapy, and education.
All three of the pillars are important and have a specific role. As a clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience as a therapist, it goes without saying that I highly recommend therapy. This is especially important if you have significant depression, post-traumatic stress, and other severe symptoms. Therapy is also very helpful if you are struggling to understand or come to terms with family relationships and difficult experiences in your history.
The use of medication for panic and anxiety is often indicated when the symptoms are severe. It can help you to bear the discomfort of anxiety, but it is not a long-term solution by itself and it does not work for everyone. In my opinion, medication can be useful if you are struggling to tolerate your symptoms but are also engaged in either therapy or education.
Education can also be a major component of therapy depending on the approach of the therapist. In fact, much of what I do with my clients who suffer from panic is to teach them concepts and skills that are needed to work with anxiety in a more helpful way. Many of my clients had major breakthroughs from learning and applying just a few simple concepts.
In my previous articles on panic, (here, here, and here), I explain what causes panic and panic disorder. Thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions all play an important role in the cause and maintenance of panic and other anxiety disorders. In many ways, it will be necessary for you to learn the opposite of what you have automatically been doing in these areas. Yes, unfortunately, we tend to do things that make our anxiety worse instead of better.
This can feel challenging but there are practices that will help you to move in this direction. Dealing with anxiety more skillfully involves unlearning old automatic habits and replacing them with new ones. The good news is that research has been showing that the brain can change over time and with repetition. It’s a quality of the brain called “Neuroplasticity”.
In your current relationship with panic and anxiety, the problem is that panic has often become the focus of your life. Because it is so uncomfortable, you will focus on what you must do to either prevent it or to make it stop. But that response, while automatic, is actually what serves to fuel the anxiety.
This is the paradox of anxiety disorders and many other mental health problems, not to mention what creates much of our suffering in general. The more we try to avoid or not have a certain feeling or experience, the more likely it is to become a problem for us.
The key to dealing with anxiety is to get to know it and to accept it in a way that actually transforms your relationship with it and removes its ability to take hold in your life.
Do you recall the “Chinese Finger Trap” toys that you stick your fingers in? If you do, you might remember that you pull your fingers apart, the trap clamps down on them. Paradoxically, when you release the tension you can become free. This is exactly what happens with panic.
When people come to me and other mental health professionals, they are looking for us to take away their anxiety. That is reasonable to want, but it is actually not possible. Instead, the goal is to experience anxiety, to recognize it, but to learn how to not be controlled by it.
There is no one thing that leads you down the path to relief. But the overall theme is that we need to move toward our anxiety instead of away from it. This is no easy process but be assured that there are concrete steps that can be taken for you to move in that direction.
In my article, “Panic Survival Guide”, I talked about noticing and accepting.
It so happens that these concepts are key components of “mindfulness”. Mindfulness is about being with the present moment experience in an open and accepting way.
Learning about and practicing skills related to mindfulness and applying its concepts to your life will be the key to get out of the panic vortex.
Learning mindfulness will help you to change how you respond to your thoughts, feelings, actions, and beliefs. That is why it is used by therapists in treating patients with anxiety and other symptoms, and why it is so effective. It can be understood but more importantly, it can be practiced.
For me, this led to a complete transformation in how I viewed and experienced anxiety in my life. I went from dreading it and trying to eradicate it from my life to believe that it’s part of me, it has a role, it can be there, and I can let it come and go.
Another major concept that will help you with panic, is closely related to Mindfulness. It is called “Self-compassion”. So much of panic has to do with how you respond to your internal experience and to how you view yourself. Remember I said you will need to learn the opposite? Well, self-compassion is the opposite to the self-critical attitude that typically surrounds panic disorder and many other mental health problems.
So how can mindfulness help with your panic and anxiety? One way that mindfulness works is that it helps acquaint us with our bodies. In mindfulness practice we can learn how to attend to our bodies and their sensations in a curious and non-judging way. Instead of living in our anxious thoughts, bringing the attention to our bodies can actually have a calming and grounding effect.
Mindfulness plays a tremendous role in reducing anxiety when it comes to your thoughts. You can learn to be aware of your thoughts, how they impact your anxiety, and how to respond differently to them. Through mindfulness practices you can see that it is possible to have thoughts and not to be controlled by them.
Mindfulness also shows us new ways of relating to our emotions. Instead of trying to avoid or get away from them, you can learn to be open to your emotions. We can’t prevent our emotions from being there, but we can learn to handle them more skillfully.
Mindfulness can also help you to become more aware of your actions and how they will impact your anxiety. You can start to notice which choices are likely to increase and which are likely to decrease your anxiety.
As I mentioned in my Panic Attack Survival Guide, your beliefs play a central role in what maintains panic. Mindfulness helps you to step back and see that you have certain beliefs that may be holding you back. These stories about ourselves and the world have become so ingrained that you may not even notice they are there. With mindfulness practice we can see them for what they are, that the negative ones are not of use to you. You can start to exchange them for more flexible, more helpful, kinder views of yourself and the world
Because your current responses are all automatic and have been repeated, you will need to train your brain to respond differently. The keyword here is practice. But unlike other types of practice, mindfulness practice does not require any special equipment or clothing, and you can do it at any moment.
Practice works because when we repeat certain actions, the brain actually starts to change. If you’ve been responding to anxiety the same way for years, you will need to train the brain to develop a new response. You can learn to ride the wave of anxiety the way you once learned to ride a bike or play the piano.
Finally, mindfulness is about shifting our attitude toward anxiety and yourself. This involves the words that you use, the tone of your voice, your facial expressions, and the even the posture of your body. Instead of the automatic response of repulsion, recovery will involve cultivating a response of acceptance toward anxiety. It will also involve the self-compassionate stance that I mentioned earlier. The shift in attitude will come with time.
In summary, the road to recovery will involve learning and practicing new ways of responding to and viewing your internal world. Your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions. It will involve an attitude of kindness and acceptance.
No matter how far along you are in the panic journey, or how firmly it has taken hold of your life, there is always a path toward recovery. I lived this myself, and I know that panic does not have to control you.
What’s more, is that the mindfulness-based concepts and skills that you will learn will apply to more than just your anxiety and panic. They will help you to be more present and more at peace, to be more flexible, and to pursue what really matters most to you. Yes, it can actually transform your life. That’s what happened for me.
In my online community, Hello Panic, I focus on educating people about panic so it is no longer the monster in the dark. In a twist that goes against instinct and much of our medical model, I believe that what actually changes panic for good is to stop fighting it. Rather, we can benefit from getting to know it, and by saying “hello” to panic.
If this information has been helpful, you can download the full infographic. I also have a 27-minute long video on YouTube (embedded below) where I will walk you through this infographic and others like it.
Best wishes to you on your panic journey, and I hope to hear from you soon!