July 13, 2023

Are you suffering from panic attacks? Learn how you can stop them with CBT.

Panic attacks can be an incredibly distressing experience for those who suffer from them. Here’s Blue’s Becci Meagher to help you understand more and learn what you can do to stop them.

Panic attacks can feel like an overwhelming surge of fear and anxiety that can come on suddenly and without warning. Panic attacks can also lead to physical symptoms, such as a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and sweating. But what causes panic attacks, and what can you do to manage them? This is where Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) comes in.

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are the result of anxiety. They are sudden and intense feelings of fear that can last for several minutes or even longer. Panic attacks can happen unexpectedly or can be triggered by specific situations, such as being in a crowded place or having to speak in public. The symptoms of a panic attack can include:

  • A pounding or racing heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or feeling like you are choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or stomach upset
  • Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Feeling hot or cold

What causes panic attacks?

The exact cause of panic attacks is unknown, but they are thought to be related to a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Some people may be more prone to panic attacks due to their genetics, while others may develop them as a result of stressful life events or traumatic experiences. Psychological factors, such as negative thinking patterns or a tendency to catastrophise, can also play a role in the development of panic attacks.

How can CBT help with panic attacks?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in treating panic attacks – it focuses on the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and can identify and challenge the negative thinking patterns and behaviours that contribute to them.

In CBT, you will work with a therapist to identify the triggers that can cause panic attacks and most importantly what maintains them.  Because the physiological impact of panic attacks can feel so overwhelming and frightening, the interpretation and beliefs we hold about the meaning of this can keep panic going.

Here’s an example; X has never had a panic attack before; they led an active life and generally had positive mood, they had a successful career and a loving, close family support system. Recently, they had been under a lot of pressure at work and, in hindsight, recognise increased pressure and reduced sleep.

 

One day, out of the blue, in a busy shopping centre, they became hot and sweaty and felt that they may faint.  They tried to get to safety, out of the crowds to sit down however they became shaky, light headed and dizzy and their heart began to beat really fast.

Client X began to feel really scared, and their initial thought was “I’m having a heart attack, I’m going to collapse”.

The symptoms did pass after 10 minutes or so of sitting but from this day onward, client X avoided busy places. Every time they were faced with one, the same would happen.

This example highlights that our interpretation of physiological symptoms is the factor that keeps panic going, as well as the behaviours we use for safety. (Sit down, regulate breathing, carry a bottle of water, avoid busy places).  Because of these behaviours we term ‘safety behaviours’, the brain never learns that this is our threat system at play (fight or flight) and continues to trigger the cycle easily.

For example, if you have a fear of public speaking that triggers panic attacks, your therapist may work with you to identify the negative thoughts that are contributing to your anxiety. These thoughts may include beliefs such as “I will make a fool of myself” or “Everyone will think I am stupid.” Your therapist will help you to reframe these negative thoughts into more positive and realistic ones, such as “It’s normal to feel nervous before speaking in public, and I can handle it.”

In addition to working with a therapist, you may also be given homework assignments to practice the coping strategies you have learned in therapy. This can include keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings or practicing deep breathing exercises.

Will I have these attacks forever?

Panic attacks can be a distressing experience, but there are ways to manage them. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be an effective treatment for panic attacks by helping you to identify and challenge negative thinking patterns and behaviours. If you are experiencing panic attacks, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional who can guide you through the process of managing your symptoms. With the right treatment and support, you can learn to manage your anxiety and live a fulfilling life.

Please don’t hesitate to call our team for a chat on how this can work for you.  You don’t need to live with panic attacks.

Thank you for reading.

Becci