Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: Your Panic Attack Survival Guide

Frightened person hides under tableYour heart was racing. You were dizzy and felt detached. You thought you were about to die. So, understandably, you tried to escape the last situation that caused you to panic.

I get it!

It is natural to try to flee when faced with an anxiety-provoking situation or object. Every part of our being instructs us to do so. But while this could be helpful if we’re faced with a predatory animal, it is the opposite of what we should be doing during a panic attack.

Our bodies are equipped with fight-or-flight responses that, when we’re faced with what feels like danger, help us decide whether to stay and fight or to run as quickly as our legs can carry us. These are absolutely phenomenal responses that our minds and bodies produce in an effort to protect us, so kudos to you, biology, for this life-saving mechanism you have equipped each of us with.

Here is the thing, though. Although this is a fantastic response to have when we are actually faced with a threatening stimulus, panic attacks in and of themselves are not physically harmful—even though they can make us feel as if we can’t breathe. Panic attacks, which are based on a spiral of fear, confuse the brain into thinking there is real danger. The more we run, the more our minds would have us believe there is something to be running from.

So, what to do about it?

Here is your panic attack survival kit, in a series of steps:

  1. Accept, accept, accept! Acceptance is a key ingredient in mitigating and disabling these frightening responses and faulty alarm systems. The more you accept and understand, the less you fear. Try greeting your panic attack with a one-liner such as, “Hello, anxiety!” Actually picture yourself opening the door and welcoming this unpleasant visitor inside your mind’s home.
  2. Stay absolutely still! Wherever you are, stay put—do not flee. While escaping may seem like a helpful short-term solution, it only creates more problems. Running deepens the fear-processing circuits in the brain. Therefore, you may be more likely to experience the same reactions and bodily sensations the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.
  3. Breathe from your belly! Diaphragmatic breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system or calming response as quickly as a light switch, which disables your fight-or-flight response. Try this reverse breathing technique, or breathing in through your mouth while expanding your belly, and turning your tummy inward as you exhale.
  4. Your mantra: this, too, shall pass! Assuming you received a clean bill of health from your physician, just remind yourself that despite how frightening these symptoms can seem, they CANNOT harm you in any way, shape, or form.
  5. Self-empowerment and praise! Once you have successfully made it through the aforementioned steps, you have learned how to deactivate your fear response whenever you need to. So, congratulate yourself on this victory and start treating panic attacks as empowering experiences that give you an additional opportunity to master your reactions. With each step, you are rewiring your brain and training the way it responds to panic.

In addition to the aforementioned suggestions, if you or someone you care about is experiencing panic attacks, consider seeking therapy from a trained cognitive behavioral therapist who can help you start living and stop running.

References:

  1. Ravinder, J. (2015, April 20). Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274965480_Self-Regulation_of_Breathing_as_a_Primary_Treatment_for_Anxiety
  2. Steimer, T. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 4(3). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181681/

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Masha Shapiro-Berkovich, M.S.Ed., LMHC, therapist in Staten Island, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
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  • helen

    helen

    June 3rd, 2016 at 6:47 AM

    What wonderful advice. I have been known to try to run from the problems, and it has not been until I actually started embracing them, living through them, feeling the strength that I actually got from that, life has been exponentially better.

  • Lisa Friedman, LCSW

    Lisa Friedman, LCSW

    June 3rd, 2016 at 11:11 AM

    Awesome article! I will be sharing this with my clients. Lisa Friedman, LCSW

  • Masha S.

    Masha S.

    June 4th, 2016 at 7:01 AM

    Thank you so much for your kind words Lisa; I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed reading this article, and hope that this could benefit some of your clients!

  • Connie

    Connie

    June 3rd, 2016 at 1:27 PM

    The breathing exercises that you mention have been a little blessing for me. I know that it seems crazy but when I breathe from my belly it’s I don’t know, so relaxing and peaceful. I can feel the anxiety leaving me as soon as I focus on that process and begin. It takes a little while for the anxiety and panic to completely go away, but it is magical, I am telling you.

  • Masha S.

    Masha S.

    June 4th, 2016 at 7:03 AM

    Connie,
    That’s amazing to hear-the breathing exercises are really powerful!

  • Masha S.

    Masha S.

    June 4th, 2016 at 6:59 AM

    Helen,
    It’s amazing that you have been able to make that transformation. I’m so happy to hear that things have been going better for you!

  • Sanja

    Sanja

    June 4th, 2016 at 8:07 PM

    Beautiful I am dealing with panic everyday my psychology just send me this .

  • Masha S-B

    Masha S-B

    June 7th, 2016 at 10:53 AM

    Good luck in your recovery, remember: what you resist, persists.

  • Dolly

    Dolly

    June 5th, 2016 at 1:11 PM

    The more that I think about living in the moment and embracing the panic the more scared I get. I hate that feeling of being nervous, frightened even, unable to breathe… I am just not sure that ever doing any of the things listed above could make me feel better. How are they going to help me when just the very thought of not running sends me into a panic itself?

  • Masha Shapiro-Berkovich

    Masha Shapiro-Berkovich

    June 5th, 2016 at 2:19 PM

    Dolly, that’s a really valid concern. The catch-22 with panic attacks in that while hey feel terrifying, they cannot hurt you. The only way out of an attack is to pass through it as openly as possible, as an individual cannot experience once without fear. It might be beneficial to see a cognitive-behavioral specialist who can help you learn how to react to these unpleasant situations differently.

  • Masha Shapiro-Berkovich

    Masha Shapiro-Berkovich

    June 5th, 2016 at 2:20 PM

    Please forgive the typos in previous comment, as I am writing from my phone and it is using the auto-correct function.

  • Carla

    Carla

    June 6th, 2016 at 9:36 AM

    I love that even in moments like these there are some who can still be strong and who can see that this too shall pass. I know that it may not be the easiest state to get to, but it is the whole truth and if you are willing to take that as the solid truth, I think that it could be a whole lot easier to actually manage things like a panic attack.

  • Masha S-B

    Masha S-B

    June 7th, 2016 at 10:54 AM

    Carla,
    It is certainly not as easy thing to do but it can be done with practice and acceptance.

  • stu

    stu

    June 7th, 2016 at 9:40 AM

    Praise yourself daily and remind yourself that you can get through this!

  • Masha S-B

    Masha S-B

    June 7th, 2016 at 10:55 AM

    Stu,
    So inspiring-what wonderful advice!

  • Jamie H.

    Jamie H.

    January 28th, 2019 at 3:10 PM

    This article just described me exactly. I have told myself that I run for everybody elses safety as I start to loose all control when the “tunnel vision” begans to appear. It seems that I can not let go of the things that provoke anxiety and I will hold those memories for a very long time.

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