The DIY Guide to Stopping Panic Attacks
How I overcame the fear of fear itself—and you can too
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re someone who has panic attacks. I don’t need to explain to you how awful they feel.
If you are not someone who experiences panic attacks, I’ll say this: Panic attacks are one of those things that seem really stupid until they happen to you. From the outside, someone having a panic attack appears to be collapsing for virtually no reason whatsoever. From the inside, panic attacks feel indistinguishable from heart attacks, aneurysms, and other fatal medical emergencies.
Some people will have no more than a handful of panic attacks throughout their lifetime. Others won’t be so fortunate, with panic attacks that recur several times a month or even a week.
It’s hard to know how many people suffer from recurring panic attacks. In addition to those with panic disorder (which affects somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of people during their lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Health), people with other mental health concerns like specific phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder also suffer from recurring panic attacks.
The good news is that panic attacks are curable. After being diagnosed with panic disorder in 2016 after having upward of five panic attacks a week, I was able to cure my panic attacks altogether. (In fact, I’m cooler and more collected than I was before I had panic disorder in the first place.)
To understand how to cure panic attacks, you first have to understand what panic attacks are.
What Are Panic Attacks?
A panic attack is a failure of the parasympathetic nervous system during which your nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response in reaction to itself.
That’s a scientist’s explanation. Allow me to explain a little more clearly.
All of us have a nervous system: a network of nerve cells that coordinates action throughout the body through the transmission of electrical impulses. Our nervous system is how our brain tells us to move our legs when we want to walk, how our stomach tells our brain when it is hungry, and how other parts of the body make it possible for us to take every other action we need to survive.
Our nervous system is also responsible for our emotions. Emotions occur when the brain stimulates electrical impulses in itself. When we feel angry or sad or afraid, those emotions are being created and sustained by our nervous system.
The nervous system creates emotions as a survival mechanism. If we see a tiger in the bushes and we feel afraid, that fear causes us to run from the threat. If someone is yelling at us and we want to yell back, it is because our primitive brain thinks defending ourselves will ensure our survival.
Panic attacks — and, by extension, all anxiety disorders — are a failure of the nervous system to regulate these emotions appropriately. It is proper for your nervous system to make you afraid when confronted with a tiger. When you feel afraid of a tiger, your brain is working correctly. However, it is not proper for your nervous system to make you afraid when you are confronted with the notion of, say, going to a casual party. The key to ending panic attacks is restoring your brain’s proper reactions.
Panic attacks can occur on their own — as part of panic disorder — or as a symptom of another diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or some other mental health condition. The “cause” of, or psychological trigger for, your panic attacks will differ with your diagnosis, but the pathology itself is always the same. In other words, a panic attack is a panic attack no matter what diagnosis you have.
How Does This Improper Reaction Happen?
The malfunction that causes anxiety and panic disorders is the result of a vicious cycle.
The cycle starts with an initial stressor that for whatever reason leads you to feel fear. For me, my stressor was food. Thanks to another health problem, digesting food can sometimes be very painful for me. With every meal I eat, I run the risk of being in a lot of pain a few hours later. I began to become afraid of food because I was scared of being in pain.
Your own confusion reinforces the cycle You don’t know why you react so strongly to what you’re afraid of. I didn’t understand that I was so afraid of food because I had pills to control the pain, and also because I need food to live. As your fear grows, you begin to ask questions like:
- Why does x thing make me so anxious?
- Why does the idea of doing x make me want to run away and hide?
The intellectual part of yourself becomes bewildered by your out-of-proportion responses.
As my fear grew, I began to restrict my diet more, eating fewer and fewer types of foods. The idea of eating anything besides these foods gave me extreme anxiety. It was at this point that I began to experience panic attacks after eating foods that weren’t in this narrow comfort zone.
This is the point at which sufferers of panic attacks start placing restrictions on themselves: “I can’t go on planes/go on roller coasters/go to loud parties because I will have a panic attack.”
At the same time the worst fear kicks in — fear of panic attacks themselves. Your panic attacks become common enough that you become afraid to do what you are afraid to do purely because it might give you a panic attack.
Even when people invited me out to eat at places I knew I liked, I was so afraid of possibly having a panic attack that I declined the invitations, shrinking my comfort zone even further.
In the end, what happens with anxiety disorders is this: you become afraid of being afraid, so you are always afraid.
How to Break the Vicious Cycle
The vicious cycle of panic only works for two reasons:
- You allow yourself to become confused by the panic attacks: You find yourself wondering, I’m not a fearful person, so why is this happening to me?and How can I make this stop before I become a shut-in?
- You allow yourself to become afraid of the panic attacks: You restrict your activities and your interests in order to avoid having more panic attacks.
The good news is that there is an easy trick to short-circuit this cycle.
The bad news is that you won’t like it.
Stop trying to stop your panic attacks.
Panic attacks happen when you are afraid of being afraid. If you are no longer afraid of being afraid, then you will not be afraid.
What makes panic attacks so frightening is the feeling they give you that you’re dying. The first few times people have a panic attack, it feels so much like a legitimate medical emergency that they often rush off to the emergency room.
Six hours later, the tests all show the patient in perfect health and some very frustrated ER doctors send them home with a prescription for benzodiazepine and a polite request to calm the fuck down, advice that is universally worthless.
I’ll bet you’re feeling the same way about my advice. Stop trying to stop them? My whole goal is to stop them!
It is. But you can’t stop panic attacks by trying to stop them. Panic attacks are, essentially, episodes of acute fear. If you are afraid of experiencing fear, you are already experiencing fear. If you are already experiencing fear, it is really easy to have an acute episode of fear. The key is to stop being afraid of episodes of acute fear.
Panic disorders can be a serious mental health problem, and you should talk to your doctor about your symptoms to rule out underlying physiological causes and determine the correct course of treatment for your case. However, there are some things you can do on your own to help yourself if you are having panic attacks.
These techniques helped me, and I hope they will help you as well.
How to Stop Being Afraid of Being Afraid
Thanks to our subconscious mind, when we tell ourselves something, we listen. Psychologists call this phenomenon self-talk, which is basically what we tell ourselves about the world. If we tell ourselves the world is a great place, the world is a great place. If we tell ourselves it’s shit, it’s shit.
Next time you have a panic attack, and every time thereafter, tell yourself this: “I am having a panic attack. I accept that it is uncomfortable. It is okay.”
It is imperative that you use those three phrases. Here’s why:
I am having a panic attack.
People who have panic attacks sometimes believe that they are having a legitimate medical emergency. When I first started having panic attacks, I believed each one was a new crisis — a heart attack, a stomach bleed, a stroke. In order to cure panic attacks, you must accept that that is all that is happening and you are in no medical danger.
I accept that it is uncomfortable.
If you try to force your panic attack to stop, you will only fuel the fear that gives it life. In order to stop having panic attacks, you need to be comfortable with having them.
Consider people who go into physical therapy — they enter physical therapy because their muscles hurt, but it is only through making those muscles hurt more in therapy that the patient builds the strength to overcome the initial injury. Similarly, it is only through embracing panic attacks that you can teach your brain how not to have them in the future (more on this below).
It is okay.
The last part of this phrase helps you acknowledge that it is okay to be having a panic attack. Once you accept that all that is happening is a panic attack, and accept the discomfort that goes along with having one, you may still feel distressed that you are having one at all. But you don’t need to feel weak or guilty for having an attack. You are allowed to feel whatever you feel.
Self-talk doesn’t work instantaneously. If you march into the bathroom right now and shout at yourself in the mirror, “Stop having panic attacks!,” you will, most assuredly, keep having panic attacks. The key is to tell yourself these three things — and believe them, if you can — every time you have one.
You will know self-talk is working when your panic attacks start to become manageable. Oh, I know how this goes, you will say to yourself. My hands will get cold, my heart will pound, and I will feel sick for 45 minutes, or whatever your particular symptoms are. Instead of every panic attack being a new and unique disaster, they will become — in an unpleasant sort of way — routine.
How to Embrace a Panic Attack
Beyond just accepting that you are having a panic attack, it can also be helpful to fully embrace the experience. Towards this end, it may help to take some action to make your panic worse. What this will prove to you, paradoxically, is that you cannot force your own panic attacks to become worse!
For example, one time, when I was having a panic attack over the notion of throwing up, I went to the bathroom and tried to force myself to do so. Not only did I not succeed in throwing up, but my panic attack ended.
Beyond the Panic Attacks
Presumably, your goal is not to have manageable panic attacks, but to not have panic attacks at all.
Using self-talk alone, I was able to go from having multiple debilitating panic attacks a day to experiencing mild anxiety every week or so. This was loads better than suffering full-stop panic attacks, sure, but it wasn’t ideal. I didn’t want to have manageable anxiety. I wanted peace.
Here is the hard part: once you are able to manage your panic attacks, you need to start confronting your fear in the first place. You need to start being brave.
Acting despite your fear.
Besides my food-related fears, for most of my life, I was terrified of plane flights. Being on a plane experiencing turbulence was my worst nightmare. Even as recently as last year, after I stopped my panic attacks, being on a plane was still not something I relished.
I coped by never going on planes. Since I don’t travel for work and all my family lives close by, avoiding flights was easy—until last year, when my boss told me I had to fly to Florida for work.
Armed with a year’s worth of self-talk and a winning streak of zero panic attacks for a year and a half straight, I agreed to the trip.
As I boarded the plane, I felt the characteristic start of a panic attack: pounding chest, shortness of breath, cold and tingling hands, the whole nine yards. I used my positive self-talk: “I’m just having a panic attack. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s nothing to worry about. Millions of people fly on planes every year without incident.” The panic attack was mild but no big deal.
But as I sat there telling myself about how planes were perfectly safe, my brain whispered back: No matter how safe planes are, there is still a chance you’ll die in a fireball over Tennessee. I had no response to this. Technically, it was true. There was a chance, however slim, that I would die in a fireball over Tennessee. There’s only one way to be sure you won’t, my brain whispered. Get off the plane now.
Then something clicked inside me. My brain was right. There was a chance that I would die, horrifically, screaming as the plane I was in exploded and fell out of the sky. But I assessed the risks, and I decided this flight was worth the risk. Stop being a coward, I told myself. If you are going to die today, face death with honor.
My fear evaporated on the spot. I haven’t been afraid of planes since.
This approach to anxiety is my take on a method proposed by Dr. Claire Weekes. Dr. Weekes was a general practitioner and health writer who wrote a very famous self-help book called Hope and Help for Your Nerves, a full-length treatment of the method I have just laid out for you. If you want more detail on how to use this method, please read her excellent book. It saved my life.
Don’t underestimate what focused thought can do. But if you do need more help than this article and the recommended reading can give, any mental health practitioner trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (basically all of them) can help you. In fact, Dr. Weekes’s method is a popular variation of cognitive behavioral therapy, and you can find a therapist familiar with her writing to work with you.