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Managing Panic Attacks

Learn Healthy Ways of Coping with Panic

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Updated June 29, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many people struggle in figuring out the best ways for managing panic attacks. This may especially be the case for someone with PTSD. It has been found that people who experience a traumatic event and/or have PTSD are at greater risk for developing panic attacks and panic disorder.

If you have PTSD, the experience of panic attacks is important to address. Panic attacks may lead you to avoid certain activities or places, which can lead to a worsening of your PTSD. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that you can use to cope with panic attacks. Some of these strategies are listed here.

Practicing Deep Breathing

We often don't pay a lot of attention to our breathing. However, practicing deep breathing can have a tremendous impact on your anxiety levels and can be an excellent way of coping with and/or preventing panic attacks. A simple exercise for improving your breathing to help you relax is presented in this article.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Using relaxation exercises can be an effective way to reduce your anxiety and prevent panic attacks. One relaxation exercise called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) focuses on a person alternating between tensing and relaxing different muscle groups throughout the body. In this way, relaxation is viewed like a pendulum -- more complete relaxation of your muscles can be obtained by first going to the other extreme (that is, by tensing your muscles). In addition, by tensing your muscles (a common symptom of anxiety) and immediately relaxing them, the symptom of muscle tension may become a signal to relax over time

Use Self-Monitoring to Improve Awareness of Panic Cues

Self-monitoring is a very important skill. We are all "creatures of habit." That is, we often go about our day without much awareness, not connecting with much of what goes on around us. This may increase the extent to which panic attacks feel like they are occurring "out of the blue."

Self-monitoring can help you become more aware of triggers for your panic attacks. By increasing your awareness of triggers, you may be able to address them before panic occurs.

Using Mindfulness to Cope with Panic Attacks

Mindfulness is focused on being aware of and in touch with the present moment in a non-evaluative way. People who experience panic attacks often evaluate their physical sensations in a catastrophic or negative way. For example, someone who experiences panic attacks may evaluate an increase in heart rate as a sign that they are having a heart attack or are going to have a panic attack. Mindfulness can help you take a step back from these evaluations, reducing the likelihood that they will lead to an increase in anxiety and eventually a panic attack.

Using Distraction to Cope with Intense Anxiety

The purposeful use of distraction techniques can be of benefit in coping with strong, uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety and fear. Distraction is anything you do to temporarily take your attention off of an emotion. Sometimes, focusing on a strong emotion can make it feel even stronger and more out of control. Therefore, by temporarily distracting yourself, you may give the emotion some time to decrease in intensity, making it easier to manage.

Self-Soothing Exercises for Preventing Panic

When you are experiencing anxiety, it is important to have ways of coping with those feelings so they don't intensify and lead to a panic attack. Coping strategies that you can do on your own to improve your mood and reduce anxiety are sometimes described as self-soothing or self-care coping strategies.

Cognitive Restructuring for Panic

How we evaluate and think about physical sensations can have a great impact on whether or not we experience anxiety and potentially a panic attack. Given this, it is very important to pay attention to your thoughts and how they may be influencing your anxiety, as well as how to address them before they affect your mood or influence your behavior.

This article describes a number of errors in thinking that have been found to increase the likelihood of experiencing anxiety. It also describes ways you can begin addressing these thoughts.

Improving Your Sleep to Reduce Panic

Sleep problems are common among people with PTSD. Poor sleep can negatively impact your ability to manage anxiety, increasing the likelihood of a panic attack. Therefore, it is very important to find ways to improve your sleep.

Exposure Therapy for Panic Attacks

Exposure therapy has been found to be very effective in treating the symptoms of PTSD. However, did you know that exposure therapy can also be useful in treating panic attacks? In exposure therapy for panic attacks, people are exposed to physical sensations that they associate with panic (for example, increased heart rate or shortness of breath). This is called "interoceptive exposure."

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Experiencing panic attacks can lead you to avoid certain activities or situations, greatly interfering with your quality of life. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may be helpful in addressing this avoidance.

ACT is a behavioral treatment that is based in the idea that suffering comes not from the experience of emotional pain, but from our attempted avoidance of that pain. Its overarching goal is to help people be open to and willing to have their inner experiences while focusing attention not on trying to escape or avoid pain (because this is impossible to do), but instead on living a meaningful life.

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