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Overcoming Panic Attacks using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

By Krissi Maarx

Inhale deeply, exhale slowly, and focus only on your breathing for a few minutes. As your mind and body give in to the relaxation activated by this technique, you may notice an inner silence that wasn't there previously. This is because you shifted your focus away from your inner chatterbox - the stream of thoughts running in the background of your mind. You also used the two keys to overcoming panic attacks: cognitive control (shifting your focus) and healthy behaviors (use of a relaxation technique).

Overcoming panic attacks is not as simple as taking a few deep breaths, of course, but cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) uses a combination of both keys to release you from the clutches of panic. A significant reduction in anxiety is possible with as few as 8 to 10 CBT sessions, according to the American Psychological Association.

Controlling the Chatterbox

The inner stream of thought allows negative ideas to trickle through it, regardless of whether the ideas are true, and these negative thoughts create anxiety. Perhaps your chatterbox sometimes says that you're not good enough, or that something horrible is about to happen to you. When these negative thoughts go unchallenged, they trickle through more frequently and work their way into your belief system. "I might not be able to handle this," becomes "I cannot handle this." Half the battle of overcoming panic attacks is learning to challenge these thoughts, which is partly what cognitive behavioral therapy helps you do. CBT encourages you to:

Identify Negative Thoughts: By recording your thoughts when you feel anxious, you can identify thought patterns that lead to panic attacks.
Challenge Thought Patterns: If you have a panic attack after your chatterbox repeatedly tells you that no one likes you, for example, challenge the thoughts by listing those who love and care about you.
Use Positive Affirmations: By repeating positive things about yourself, you increase the amount of constructive thoughts flowing through your inner stream. Use affirmations to challenge negative ideas by stating the exact opposite of what your chatterbox tells you. "I cannot handle this," becomes "I can handle this." As you practice methods for controlling negative perceptions and thought patterns, you prepare yourself for the actions that promote a full recovery from panic.

Overcoming Panic Attacks by Changing Behaviors

Negative thought patterns typically arise from fear or past negative events. We try to avoid situations that force us to face fear, and we tend to avoid situations that remind us of negative life experiences. Cognitive behavioral therapy slowly introduces you to these fears so that you gradually build your ability to cope with anxiety-inducing situations.

In addition to the cognitive challenges that prepare you for this, relaxation techniques help you manage the anxiety you will experience during the exposure to feared objects or settings. As you successfully endure each small step of exposure, you realize that you do have the strength and confidence to face your fears. Cognitive behavioral therapy does not put you into harm's way; it educates you about anxiety, helps you challenge unhelpful thoughts, and provides a safe setting for confronting frightening situations. As you tackle both the thoughts and behaviors that create anxiety, overcoming panic attacks becomes increasingly easier.

American Psychological Association. Anxiety disorders: The role of psychotherapy in effective treatment. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/anxiety-treatment.aspx

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