15 Strategies To Help Cope With A Panic Disorder

In my article “Why People Functioning With Panic Disorders Don’t Need To Apologize For How They Think,” many people asked me what I do in order to cope with an attack. These are not necessarily in order, and not all of these will work for every single person. Find what works best for you.

1. Accept It

You will never be able to stop an irrational thought or panic attack from starting until you become accepting of the fact that you do have a panic disorder, and that it will get the best of you at times. Once you realize that it is perfectly okay to have this disorder and that you hold the power to calm yourself down, you will be in the right mindset to begin to battle the disorder.

2. Recognize The Panic Cycle

It is very important that you identify that you are having a panic attack. I know that sounds silly, but trust me on this: your panic attacks won’t always feel the same. There have been times where the panic attack I am having differs greatly from what they normally feel like, which throws me off guard and makes it difficult for me to work through it. When that happens, I get convinced that I am dying and all my fears are coming true.

With my typical panic attacks, I get dizzy, nauseated, overheated, and my heart starts to beat out of my chest. However today, I did not have any of those symptoms, but I was incredibly overtired and had a headache. I could have sworn I had gotten enough sleep last night and drank enough water today, so I couldn’t rationalize what I was feeling. The more I thought about my symptoms, the worse my body felt due to a panic attack taking an unusual form. I said to myself, “There is no way this is a panic attack. Something is seriously wrong with me. What if I am having a stroke?” I had to step back and realize that my minor symptoms were becoming amplified by my fear, and that the panic attack was taking on a different form. The good news is that once you realize you are having a panic attack, you can jump back in and fight it the same exact way, even if the symptoms are different.

According to Chapter 7 of The Panic Attack Workbook, which can be found here, there are seven stages within a normal panic attack. If you scroll to page 78, they have a diagram of the entire cycle, and I think it is incredibly accurate. This helped me realize why I felt so trapped and helpless when I had an attack, and it may help you pull apart your attacks so you can stop them quicker.

3. Attempt To Identify The Trigger

If it is possible, try to think back to what may have caused the attack. In my experience, this has proven to be incredibly difficult. I sometimes swear the trigger doesn’t exist, but I then realize the trigger was something I thought I would never worry about in a million years, which was why it was impossible to identify. I have found that if you sit down and think long and hard back through your thoughts, sometimes you’ll be able to find it. If you can’t, don’t stress about it- just try again next time. If you are able to identify a lot of your triggers, look for a common denominator and maybe you will find your “focus worry” that I discussed in my previous article. Once you find your focus worry, it might help to try to work through that so your panic attacks will make more sense to you.

4. Reason With Yourself

When I was 12, I was afraid I had breast cancer. I barely even had breasts then! Even though I had no idea what that cancer was, I must have seen a television commercial about it or something, and my disorder ran wild with it. When I told my mom about it, she told me to reason with myself and ask if it is feasible first. Is it feasible for a 12 year old with a flat chest to develop breast cancer? Probably not. Is it feasible for a plane to fall out of the sky and crush me? Probably not. It was easy for me to let go of that particular worry because it seemed so unlikely, which was very comforting to me. I started using this strategy as a check system each time a worry popped into my head.

Again, we know that some of our fears are irrational, impossible, and only feasible in our imaginations, but that doesn’t make them any less real to us. It is perfectly okay to have these worries in your head, but try to weed out the ones that are illogical and improbable. It does take practice and time, but it is definitely achievable.

5. Get Angry

This is one of my favorites! I know every single one of us with a panic disorder is sick and tired of letting it control us. We are not enjoying our lives to the fullest due to fear, and many experiences are ruined or tainted with our latest worry. It kills me to look back on a family or friend events and remember how I was so nervous about something that never even happened. I always want to kick myself for not being able to enjoy the moment and be completely present rather than in my head. Let’s take the sadness and disappointment we feel, and turn it into anger. Once we get angry, fear has much less control and power over us.

6. Breathe

This one is simple. Close your eyes and take three to five deep breaths, and try to clear your head. It will slow down your heart rate and your symptoms, and allow you to see and think a little bit more rationally.

7. Change The Channel

If I had a nickel for every time my mother told me this growing up, I would be the richest person on this planet. This is very simple: the moment a worry comes into your head, immediately “change the channel.” Think of something else entirely. Don’t even give that thought a moment to “breathe” and turn into something bigger. What I do is think to myself, “No. You are not using any of my mental energy today,” and try to think about what I am going to make for dinner, or try to remember what song I heard earlier on the radio that I want to buy. This one is very hard to master, but when you do, it works wonders- I promise!

8. Countdowns and Distractions

If you need a way to “change the channel,” there are a few exercises that I force my brain to do that gets it thinking about something else.

-Count backwards from 100
-Try to say the alphabet backwards
-Try to come up with a fruit or vegetable for every letter of the alphabet
-Play that game “I went to a picnic and I brought…” by yourself
-Try to sing the alphabet backwards

These may seem incredibly ridiculous to you, but I have found that they work when you need to “shift the gears” in your brain.

9. Look At The Big Picture

Try to think about all of the struggles you have been through, and how in the grand scheme of things, what you are worried about probably isn’t too horrible once you really think about it. I know sometimes it will be, so use a different strategy when that happens.

Try to realize that what you are worried about is probably something you can handle if it were to happen. For example, I was really afraid to get my blood drawn the other day, and then I thought about all of the times my mother had to get her blood drawn in the hospital when she had her stroke. I felt so silly for being worried about something so small, and it gave me the courage to stop worrying about it right then and there.

10. Force Yourself To Step Outside Of Your Comfort Zone

Go and do as many things as you can that worry you. A good example for me is going into Target. For some reason, whenever I go into Target alone, I feel like I am going to pass out. My thoughts snowball into a giant panic attack, such as:

Wow the walls are really bright in here.

I am dizzy now.

What if I pass out right here on the floor?

What if when I hit the floor, I crack my head open?

Will anyone help me?

The bathroom is really far away, what if I have to throw up?

Can these people tell I am having a panic attack?

What if I die because no one heard what happened and did not call 911?

Instead of driving past Target like I so desperately want to, I force myself to go inside and walk around alone, even if I don’t need anything. It gets easier every time, and I am trying to apply this lesson to bigger things in my life, such as moving away from my family someday.

11. Baby Steps And “Lifelines”

Don’t feel pressure to take big leaps at once. Start small. For example, I am terrified to stay home alone at night when my roommate is travelling for work. The first time I had to do it, I called my friend Mike and told him how worried it made me. I told him my main issue with it is that I worry something terrible will happen to me, such as having a stroke, seizure, or a break in, and no one will know to call for help. He told me to put my laptop on a Skype call with him all night and he would be an extra pair of ears, or a “lifeline.” I laughed when he suggested it, but it worked wonders! I didn’t even need to do it after the first night! Take small steps and eventually you will make big strides!

12. Talk About It

I am hoping the stigma attached to this disorder eventually disappears and people can talk openly about it. Something that wonderful can only happen if all of us stand together and talk about our experiences! Talk to your friends who are understanding and supportive, talk to other people with this disorder, and talk to those who do not understand in hopes of changing their minds! If you don’t have anyone to talk to every time you need to, just talk to your reflection in the mirror. Verbalizing your fears, even if no one can hear you, can be a big release.

13. Write It On A Piece Of Paper, And Then Throw The Paper Away

Write down whatever it is that is worrying you, and then crumple it up and toss it in the garbage. The visual you will see of your worry “disappearing” will relieve you and give you some satisfaction.

14. Don’t Let It Win

When I try to create a visual of my panic disorder, I think of two identical versions of me fighting each other. One is obviously the true version of me, and the other is the person I turn into when I begin to worry. Although the true Lauren has won a lot of battles, the irrational, nervous Lauren still kicks true Lauren’s ass every day. The two versions will be fighting each other every single day of my life, but I have to believe that the true version of myself will prevail.

There is a Native American proverb that comes from the Cherokee tribe that I think describes our disorder very well:

“One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.’ The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf wins?’ The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’”

We need to make sure we are “feeding” our true selves, and letting our fears starve.

15. Know That Your Disorder Does Not Define You

You are not your panic disorder. There is so much more to you than your irrational fears and panic attacks, and please do not ever forget that. I have been asked before if I would make my disorder disappear if I had the choice. My honest answer is no. I would keep it.

Although my panic disorder does not define me, it is part of who I am. It has made me into a stronger person. It has made me want to change lives. It has made me understanding, sympathetic, and patient. It has shown me how scary the human mind can be, but that I still have the power to control where my thoughts go. It empowers me and pushes me to become better.

I am proud that I have this disorder because it unites me with all of you. I will beat this every single day as much as I am capable of, and I hope to help others do the same. I am a fighter, and I will never back down, no matter how tough my life may become.

I would like to thank my mother, Dawn Petrolle, for teaching me many of these, and getting me through the days where I couldn’t bear to live another moment. I love you, Mom. TC Mark

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