How to Recover from Panic Attacks
STEP 3: Change your attitude!
This section will help you feel more in control by giving you the Big Picture of how to handle panic. It will offer a way to organize all that you are learning into several common points of view. My intention from the beginning has been to give you as much information as you could possibly use, because you must become a student of panic to really take control of it. On top of that knowledge base you need to have many tricks and maneuvers to help with your anxiety. Yet every year that I work with people having panic attacks I become more convinced that you have one primary task. That is to manage your attitude. “Attitude” means your basic view of your relationship with panic and anxiety, your judgment of panic, your belief about how you should act in the face of anxiety.
As we approach any task, our attitudes and beliefs influence the degree to which we are willing to try to solve problems, our determination to persist in the face of obstacles, and the amount of time and energy we devote to the endeavor. So, pay attention to all the skills in this self-help guide, and practice those skills regularly. But when you are ready to take on panic, focus primarily on your attitude. That will be the driving force of your healing.
Few self-help approaches put most of their marbles on “attitude.” Typically they will direct you to make lists of your strengths, prioritize your goals, experiment with new behaviors and record your changes. These are excellent suggestions for a self-help approach, but it is the nature of panic that requires you to go beyond technique to modifying your attitude. I firmly believe — after talking with thousands of people in treatment sessions, training programs and public lectures — that it is attitude, not technique, that will take you across the finish line.
Consider the possibility that you can “inoculate” yourself with these eight statements. One of the greatest achievements in medicine began when William Jenner discovered that fluid from cowpox sores could immunize people against the deadly disease of smallpox. Physicians can now inoculate against dozens of illnesses, from polio, rubella, and yellow fever to tetanus, hepatitis B and rabies.
A vaccine consists of a dead or modified form of a disease-causing microbe. Once injected, it stimulates the body’s production of antibodies to the organism. If the microbe should then enter the body, the antibodies help neutralize and remove the microbe from the body before it can multiply and cause disease.
You inoculate yourself by taking in some of the causative agent in order to experiment with it or to become immune to it. Therefore, inoculations are paradoxical treatments: they take you close to what you want to avoid. That’s how you can use this section. Stop doing the activities that seem instinctual in the face of panic. Instead, go directly toward panic, drop your guard and let it touch you. Clearly you will be “experimenting” when you apply these inoculating attitudes. I predict that you also will become immune, which means “not affected by or responsive to” panic.
How valuable can your attitude be? I know some people who have applied no techniques — they didn’t control their breathing, they didn’t learn relaxation skills, they didn’t plan strategies for coping with symptoms — and they still brought their panic under control in a matter of weeks. They did that by focusing strictly on the eight attitudes presented in this section.
The reverse is not true. I have known many more people who have attempted to apply techniques without a shift in their attitude. They used the techniques while simultaneously thinking, “This better work! I can’t stand this anxiety. I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” They, unfortunately, continued to struggle with symptoms of anxiety and panic.
So, the point is . . . Especially when things aren’t working for you, when you apply suggestions and they just don’t seem to help, that is an important time to return to this section and check on your attitude. Also — after you recover from this problem — if you begin to experience a few symptoms of anxiety returning, again pay attention to applying these attitudes to your symptoms.
The Eight Attitudes of Recovery
- “I can’t let anyone know.”
- “Panic is evil, bad, the enemy.”
- “I want to avoid the symptoms.”
- “I must relax right now.”
- “I must stay on guard.”
- “This is a test.”
- “I must be certain (that there is no risk).”
- “This had better work.”
- “I am not ashamed.”
- “What can I learn as a student of panic?”
- “I want to face the symptoms to gain skills.”
- “It’s OK to be anxious here.”
- “I won’t guard myself against anxiety.”
- “This is practice.”
- “I can tolerate uncertainty.”
- “It’s OK if it doesn’t work.”
As you practice your skills to overcome panic, take a look at your basic attitudes and consider any changes that might make you more determined and committed to solving this problem. The kinds of statements people make about themselves or their behaviors often represent their attitudes.
In this section, two contrasting statements reflect each of these eight attitude shifts. The first self-statement in each pair reflects a personal position that undermines the task of controlling panic. It is the most likely way that any of us would think about such a difficulty, so it’s no surprise if you think this way. It comes quite naturally. The problem is, it doesn’t work. When put into action, it works against your desired goal of healing. The motto I go by is this: if what you are doing isn’t working, try anything else.
The second self-statement in each pair reflects the attitude I encourage you to explore. It moves you away from being a victim of anxiety and toward the freedom of panic free living. But I must warn you, it might feel quite unnatural to hold these attitudes in the face of panic or anxiety.
Now begin by learning more about Changes #1 through #8.