Understanding Panic Attacks and How Therapy Can Help You Manage Them


Panic attacks can be intensely overwhelming experiences, characterized by sudden surges of fear and physical symptoms that may seem uncontrollable. These episodes can occur unexpectedly, and can create significant distress. They may be infrequent, situation specific or even impact daily functioning. Once someone experiences a panic attack they are often worried that being in the same place, or situation, as when they had the first panic attack happened will trigger another one. This can often lead to people avoiding once familiar places and situations, “just in case” it happens again.

Therapy offers powerful tools and personalized support, enabling individuals to regain control and diminish the fear surrounding panic attacks. In this article, I describe the dynamics of panic attacks and then discuss how therapy can be an important part of the journey towards recovery and regained peace of mind.

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

A panic attack can manifest through a variety of physical and emotional symptoms that may seem intense and frightening to the individual experiencing them. Commonly, individuals report feeling a racing or pounding heartbeat, which is often one of the first signs of an attack. This can be coupled with sweating, trembling, or shaking. Shortness of breath or a sensation of choking is also prevalent, adding to the overwhelming sense of panic.

Other symptoms might include feelings of impending doom, loss of control, or even a fear of dying. Physically, some people experience chest pain, nausea, dizziness, or numbness and tingling sensations, often heightening the fear that they might be suffering from a heart attack or other life-threatening condition. It’s important to recognize these symptoms not only to understand when a panic attack is occurring but also to seek appropriate therapy to manage and reduce these episodes.

Panic attacks are sudden, intense surges of fear or discomfort that peak within minutes. They can occur unexpectedly, even during sleep, and are characterized by a range of physical and emotional symptoms, including:

These symptoms can be terrifying and may leave you feeling drained and overwhelmed. It’s important to know that panic attacks, while distressing, are not life-threatening. However, their impact on your quality of life can be significant.

Identifying Triggers of Panic Attacks

Understanding what triggers a panic attack is a significant step towards managing them. Triggers can be highly individual, but common ones include stress, certain environmental factors, or overwhelming social situations. For some, merely thinking about a potential cause of stress or recalling a past traumatic event can precipitate an attack.

As your therapist, I work closely with you to identify specific triggers that may induce your panic attacks. This process involves discussing your personal history, any recent changes in your life, and your detailed experiences during panic episodes. Recognizing these triggers is crucial in developing personalized coping mechanisms to prevent or lessen the severity of future attacks.

Therapeutic Approaches to Managing Panic Attacks

Psychotherapy plays a critical role in helping individuals manage and overcome panic attacks. It is hard to do this by yourself. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective methods used in treating panic disorder. CBT focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns that can contribute to panic attacks. By learning to reframe these thoughts, individuals can reduce the occurrence of panic attacks and respond more calmly when they do occur.

Another approach is Exposure Therapy, where I guide you through controlled exposure to the sensations of panic in a safe and controlled way. This method helps desensitize your response to these sensations over time, significantly reducing the intensity of your reactions during a real panic attack. Together we will plan some manageable steps for the exposure plan. Each goal builds on the success of the previous step so it does not feel overwhelming and you decide your goals, not me. This is a collaborative journey.

Additionally, I teach you relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. These help you feel more in control as these practices help reduce the physical symptoms of panic, such as rapid breathing and muscle tension, thus providing immediate relief during panic attacks.

Lifestyle Adjustments to Support Therapy

Incorporating certain lifestyle adjustments can significantly aid the therapeutic process in managing panic attacks. A consistent sleep schedule is important, as lack of sleep can increase anxiety and vulnerability to panic attacks. Engaging in regular physical activity can also beneficial. Exercise acts as a natural stress reliever and can increase your overall sense of well-being. This can be anything from walking to more strenuous exercise, whatever is your preference.

Mindfulness and meditation practices can also be useful to incorporate into your daily routine. These practices help foster a state of awareness and presence, reducing overall stress and helping to manage anxiety more effectively. Additionally, avoiding excessive caffeine and alcohol is also advisable as these substances can provoke panic attacks in some individuals.

Building a Supportive Environment

A supportive environment is one where you have relationships with friends and family that encourage open communication about your experiences and feelings. I can offer guidance on how to effectively communicate your needs to your loved ones, which not only fosters better understanding but also enhances your support network.

It is also beneficial to create a personal safe space in your environment where you can go to feel secure and relax. This space can be a specific room in your home or even a spot outdoors that brings you peace. In this space, you can practice your relaxation techniques, free from judgment and external stressors.

Understanding Long-Term Management

It’s important to recognize that managing panic attacks is a long-term process. While therapy can provide the tools and knowledge to cope with and decrease panic attacks dramatically, it involves consistent effort and adaptation of techniques learned in therapy sessions to real world situations. Regular sessions with a therapist not only help refine these techniques but also provide ongoing support and adjustment to strategies as required. We can work on these together and each step forward, no matter how small, is progress and it’s important to celebrate these victories!

Empowering Your Journey Towards Recovery

Understanding and managing panic attacks is a multifaceted process that involves recognizing symptoms, identifying triggers, engaging in effective therapy, and making supportive lifestyle adjustments. As an experienced anxiety therapist, I am here to guide you through each step, providing personalized strategies and support to empower you toward a life of greater calm. Remember, overcoming panic attacks is not only about managing moments of intense fear but also about rebuilding a sense of confidence in your ability to navigate all of life’s challenges.

I see clients in person at my Northbrook office and work remotely with people who live in Chicago and throughout Illinois and Florida. I am deeply committed to helping individuals understand the nature of panic attacks and exploring therapeutic strategies to manage and alleviate these distressing episodes. If you are ready to take the first step towards managing your panic attacks, feel free to reach out to me. Together, we can develop a plan tailored to your needs, helping you lead a less anxious life.

Dr. Sarah Allen

If you have any questions, or would like to set up an appointment to work with me and learn how to reduce anxiety, please contact me at 847 791-7722 or on the form below.

If you would like to read more about me and my areas of specialty,  please visit Dr. Sarah Allen Bio. Dr. Allen’s professional license only allows her to work with clients who live in IL & FL & the UK and unfortunately does not allow her to give personalized advice via email to people who are not her clients. 

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