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Strategies For Coping With Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is an extremely upsetting condition. It affects your life every day, whether you're suffering from panic attacks or simply fear the panic attacks, and each day you live with panic disorder is a day that you're not as happy as you're meant to be.

So you need to cope with your panic disorder. But how do you do it? How do you control a condition that tends to cause itself? We'll provide those answers in this article.

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How to Cope With Panic Disorder

Coping with panic attacks and panic disorder isn't easy, because panic disorder itself is self-sustaining. It causes symptoms that make panic attacks more common, as well as a fear of panic attacks that can control nearly everything you do.

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The Self-Sustaining Nature of Panic Disorder

Before you can begin coping with panic disorder, you need to understand why it is so self-sustaining and what causes panic disorder to continue. The following are some of the most common reasons that panic disorder is hard to treat:

  • Hypersensitivity Panic disorder causes a symptom known as hypersensitivity. Hypersensitivity is when you are overly sensitive to changes in your body. Those that are hypersensitive notice every single change their body makes, from the smallest pain to the tiniest increase in your anxiety. When you notice anything at all, your anxiety increases dramatically as you fear for panic attacks or health.
  • Health Anxiety Very similar to hypersensitivity is the development of health anxiety. Health anxiety is extremely common in those with panic disorder because their symptoms often mimic the symptoms of serious disorders. It's hard for people to 100% believe that nothing is wrong with their health, so experience anxiety over their health which, because of hypersensitivity, causes people to react as though something is going wrong.
  • Anxiety-Free Symptoms An unusual problem with panic disorder is that the symptoms can occur when no anxiety is otherwise present. That's also a problem, because it makes people feel as though something must be wrong behind the scenes, or that their anxiety is helpless. It causes setbacks with anxiety treatments and makes people panic over whether or not it's something they can stop.
  • Breathing Issues Many of the symptoms of panic disorder are caused by hyperventilation, which we'll explore later in the article. Hyperventilation normally occurs only when you have anxiety, but some research has shown that the body may adapt to anxiety breathing by breathing inefficiently, causing hyperventilation (and some of the early symptoms of panic attacks) even when no anxiety is present.
  • Fear of Panic Attacks Panic attacks are extremely fear-inducing events. Many people experience this overwhelming fear of having a panic attack. Unfortunately, because of hypersensitivity, this fear can lead to symptoms which either create panic attacks or cause people to alter their behaviors to such a degree that they are unable to cope with their panic disorder.
  • Lack of Exercise Finally, exercise is one of the most important tools for controlling anxiety, but panic attacks can be so draining that it may be hard to exercise. This is something you will need to overcome if you want to cope with your panic attacks.

You need to make sure that you keep these issues in mind as you learn to cope with your panic attacks and panic disorder. Unfortunately, because of the self-sustaining nature of panic disorder, unless you recognize these issues you're going to have a harder time dealing with setbacks.

Coping With Panic Disorder

The good news is that people can learn to cope with panic disorder without medication or even therapy. Therapy is extremely valuable, and something you should consider if you are experiencing profound symptoms, but panic really can be controlled in the comfort of your own home. Some strategies include:

Facing the Fear

First and foremost, you do need to be willing to suffer from a panic attack. This is the hardest thing for most people with panic disorder to deal with, but unfortunately if you're not willing to have a panic attack then you're also going to have a very hard time controlling them.

Make sure that you prepare yourself for panic attacks, and be okay with the experience. As terrible as they are, living in fear of them and avoiding situations that may cause them will unfortunately create more of these situations.

Seeing a Doctor

This is one of the reasons that you do need to see a doctor and get a complete workup. It's very hard to go through panic attacks if you believe that something may be wrong with your health. See your doctor, tell them about your symptoms, and make sure that you've had everything checked out.

Note: After seeing a doctor, it is very unlikely that you're going to be 100% convinced that you do not have a health problem. This is an unfortunate symptom of panic disorder, where it causes you to distrust medical advice. So don't assume that seeing a doctor will be the end of your fears. However, you still need to see the doctor because it's unlikely you'll be able to face your fears if you still believe that something is wrong with your health.

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Panic attacks usually have triggers. Often these triggers are physical, such as dizziness or light headedness. One strategy that many psychologists use is desensitization, which thankfully can be completed in the comfort of your own home.

Desensitization is the act of reducing fear through exposure. Your mind and body are incredibly adaptive. When faced with something they fear for a long enough period of time, that fear will eventually go away if there is no danger.

For example, let's say you have a fear of spiders. If you're stuck in a room with multiple spiders for hours on end, you'll eventually stop fearing the spider when nothing dangerous happens. The mind adapts because the lack of danger stops reinforcing the fear.

With panic attacks, the triggers that cause fear are brief, and exposure to them is minimal, so the fear is reinforced. Psychologists use desensitization, then, to decrease the fear by exposing you to the feeling over and over again. For example:

  • Your panic attacks are triggered by dizziness.
  • You spin around in a chair until you're dizzy.
  • You wait until you calm down, then you spin around in the chair again.
  • Eventually you get so used to dizziness that it stops triggering anxiety.

Nearly every type of trigger has some method that can be used to desensitize it. You can even hyperventilate on purpose (though get your doctor's permission first) to get used to the most common panic attack triggers, and keep doing it regularly so that it no longer triggers anxiety.

Breathing Correctly Again

We mentioned this earlier in the article, but the biggest problem with panic attacks is actually hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is when you breathe too quickly. During a panic attack it feels as though you cannot get enough air, and so you try to breathe more. Interestingly, this is caused by hyperventilation, but hyperventilation is actually the opposite - you have breathed in too much oxygen and breathed out too much carbon dioxide. You need carbon dioxide for your body to operate properly.

Hyperventilation is usually caused by breathing quickly, but it can also be caused by taking deeper breaths than your body needs. It causes most of the worst panic attack symptoms such as:

  • Chest pains
  • Lightheadedness
  • Tingling of the hands and feet.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Trouble thinking.

Anyone that has had a panic attack recognizes these symptoms, as they tend to be the most severe. If you can reduce or stop hyperventilation, you can decrease these symptoms, this decreasing your fear of panic attacks and eventually making your panic attacks easier to control.

There are two parts to this. The first part is what you should do when you think you might be hyperventilating. While you're hyperventilating, make sure you slow your breathing down a great deal and fight any urge to take a deeper breath. Take slow, controlled breaths breathing in slowly, holding for a few seconds, and breathing out slowly.

Once you've started hyperventilating it's hard to stop all of the symptoms, but this should decrease the severity, which in turn will decrease how much you fear them.

The second strategy is to try to retrain your breathing when you're not suffering from a panic attack. Exercise and yoga are effective, but you can also try deep breathing. Sit comfortably in a chair, breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for two, and breathe out for 7. Many people find that deep breathing is an effective way to get your body back to breathing correctly again.


Exercise is certainly difficult when you suffer from panic attacks. Often you'll feel as though exercise causes panic attacks, by increasing heart rate, fatigue, etc. This is especially true if heart rate is one of your triggers.

But if you can exercise, you should, because exercise is a known anxiety cure. Exercises improves relaxation, improves breathing, and increases the amount of neurotransmitters that boost mood and reduce worries. It's easily one of the most important things you can do for your health, which is why it's a crucial part of any panic attack coping strategy.

Finding Healthy Distractions

One of the most fascinating aspects of panic attacks and panic disorder is how much your own mind tends to be your enemy. People with panic disorder live inside their own heads, and make their symptoms worse because they can't think of anything else.

That's why staying busy is extremely important - and why being okay with panic attacks occurring is important as well. You absolutely need to do your best to stay as busy as possible, out and about in a way that allows you to focus less on your anxiety. Even when you're at home doing nothing, try to make sure that there are things around you that distract your mind. Listen to podcasts, watch TV (only stress-free TV, like sitcoms), do puzzles, talk to people, etc. The less your mind can focus on anxiety, the less severe your panic and anxiety should be.

You should also consider creating some type of action plan that can help you control your anxiety from spiraling. These action plans are activities that distract your senses to reduce the focus you have on your panic, even if you're still panicking. Some examples:

  • Walking Walking may not seem like much of a distraction, but it is. Walking involves constantly changing your vision, feeling the ground beneath your feet, and if you walk outdoors a variety of smells. Walking also stimulates blood flow, so it may have added benefits for panic attacks.
  • Calling Someone Calling someone is a surprisingly effective distraction. When you talk to someone on the phone, you have to listen to what they're saying and try to respond. For some reason, many people report that it's actually more effective than talking to someone in person, possibly because of the inability to see the person's face and internalize what they're thinking/feeling.
  • Talking it Out However, let's say you do have someone near you. Don't try to keep your panic attack inside. Tell the other person how you're feeling and just talk and talk and talk about whatever is going through your mind. Letting it all out takes you out of your head, and so while you may be embarrassed about the panic attack, it is far more important that you get out of your head to reduce the severity of the attack.

Doing puzzles, turning on the TV, and even ripping up trash can all have a calming effect since they're all activities that distract you. Some people find that the simple act of drinking water and feeling the cool liquid move down your throat is enough to reduce the severity of the attack.

But whatever you do, try to find a healthy, non-dangerous distraction that you can use to make sure that your mind can't focus on what you're feeling.

Lessen the Severity - Lessen the Panic Attacks

Some of these tips are more about reducing the severity of your attacks than actually stopping them. That may not seem like coping with panic attacks, but the reality of panic disorder is that often the severity directly correlates to the fear.

In other words, when you have a very severe panic attack, you tend to fear it more. So if you can reduce the severity and/or frequency of your attacks, eventually you'll be able to live with them easier, and eventually they won't make as significant an impact in your life.

Small changes really can make a big difference, and while you'll still have the occasional setback, if you can reduce the severity and frequency of the attacks you'll have a much easier time coping with them.

Control Your Panic Attacks Forever

These are just a few examples of the simple methods that you can use to cope with your panic disorder and prevent them from having as big an impact on your life.

Find out more about coping with panic disorder by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test. It'll steer you towards other effective at-home options for controlling your panic attacks forever.

Start the test here.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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