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What Causes Panic Attacks and How to Stop Them for Good

Calm Man

“You empower what you fight. You withdraw power from what you release.” ~Alan Cohen

Panic attacks can seem to come out of nowhere, without any warning. There is no obvious logical connection between a panic attack and what is happening around us at the time they arise.

Is it really possible to be free of them, without medication? In my personal experience, the answer is yes. I used cognitive, emotional, and physical methods that eradicated my panic attacks.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

The short version of my story is that I experienced a less than peaceful upbringing and had a fair amount of anxiety and panic attacks as a result.

A trusted therapist explained to me that panic attacks develop out of a psyche that is overloaded with repressed feelings. Panic attacks are like the psyche’s release valve.

My earliest memories were comprised of the adults in my life walking out the door, seemingly for good. Sometimes they threatened to leave unless I promised to behave. As a toddler, I believed they were absolutely leaving and never coming back. There were many such incidents, leaving me with a lack of security or trust in my environment.

In addition, there was no room for my emotions in my highly charged toxic environment. Even quiet times held no respite because I knew they were only the eye of a storm that would soon roar to life again.

As a result, I automatically developed a stance much like a solider in battle. When in a storm or bracing for the next one, I remained locked in survival mode, shutting down the expression of authentic emotions.

As my high school days were coming to an end, I finally managed to move away from my family and find a place of my own. It was small, I had no money, and I was working all the time, but I had finally found a drama-free environment where I could learn to let my guard down.

Retrain Your Brain

Even after a long battle is over, many of us continue operating as if we are still in it.

We remain in survival mode, automatically repressing emotions without even realizing it. So, panic attacks can continue after the stress that caused them in the first place is long gone.

It isn’t the original stressful event that caused the attacks anyway—it was the lack of processing the fearful feelings surrounding the stressful event.

You can actually retrain your brain to realize it is safe in the present moment, and that the past trauma is vastly skewing your perception, which is why you are panicking.

A really effective exercise is to write down all the fears that are voiced during a panic attack. Then, write down as many reasonable responses as possible that refute those fears.

This exercise actually trains your brain to form new neural pathways based in reality rather than in the skewed unprocessed feelings and beliefs that come from trauma. A terrific detailed guide for these cognitive exercises is in the book Feeling Good, by Dr. David Burns.

As a teenager I worked with a trusted therapist on this. It takes time, but it really does change your perception of things. Each time a reality check proved my fearful thoughts false, I felt stronger and more positive in my interpretation of any situation.

Feel It To Heal It

If you’ve had panic attacks for a while, you’re probably sick of them. You may even tell that panicked voice of yours to just shut up and quit bothering me! However, if unprocessed feelings are what caused the panic attacks in the first place, then expressing and processing them is what will eventually cause them to disappear.

Once I realized that my panic attacks were rooted in consistent abandonment by the adults around me, I could allow that very wise and mature part of myself to listen closely and compassionately to the scared toddler inside, who got spooked anytime something resembling abandonment would arise in my life.

Instead of telling that panicked voice to be quiet, I learned to ask, “What are you afraid of? What do you need? How can I help?” Listening to that scared part of your younger self without judgment finally gives her a voice—no matter how crazy, stupid, or immature that voice may seem.

Only then can the adult part of ourselves provide the comfort to that toddler that should have been provided, many years ago. We could double check to make sure no one is leaving us or being taken from us—or that if they are, knowing that we are going to be just fine.

Act as you would want a parent to act when their children come to them, insisting there is a monster under their bed. It is comforting when parents indulge their children in checking that there are no monsters there rather than insisting that their children be quiet and go back to sleep.

You can be the comforting adult now that you really needed back then.

It is also helpful to remind the scared younger version of ourselves of all of the support and resources we now have as adults.

Adults can get jobs, earn money, drive cars, decide where to live, educate ourselves, form relationships, and break off relationships. These are all tools adults have to provide themselves with the safety and security they need, so, no matter what is happening in the present, we will never feel as helpless as we felt as a child.

Giving my inner toddler a voice finally allowed her to grieve the loss of a safe and stable environment—something I never had space to do before.

Every now and then I would make a point to sit down, pop in a sad movie, and have a good cry for the sole purpose of listening to and comforting the toddler who needed to grieve the absence of a secure place in which to grow up.

Employing these methods on a regular basis gives the scared, younger version of yourself the opportunity to express fears and needs regularly. Responding to that child in a compassionate way ensures that he or she will not have to scream to be heard in the form of a panic attack.

Reprogram Your Body

I had always assumed that one had to have calm thoughts and emotions in order to feel calm physically. It turns out that calming the body is a path to calming thoughts and emotions. As someone who is generally stuck in my head, this was a very foreign concept to me, but one I was willing to explore.

I started doing bodywork with a therapist, getting a massage occasionally, and taking yoga. The point of the bodywork was to reverse my body’s bracing reaction to stress. Intellectually, I could understand that concept, but once I put it into practice, over time, I fully realized this concept.

Being in a physically relaxed state connects every part of us to what is real rather than what we fear. The more often we can bring ourselves back to a physical place of relaxation, the more connected we are to the peaceful perspective instead of the skewed fearful perspective that fosters panic attacks.

Keep At It

Eradicating panic attacks does not happen overnight. Not even close. I found it impossible to picture a panic-free life when I was in the midst of my process, but it did happen after about two years of all of these efforts.

It’s important to be compassionate with yourself and the process for taking so long. It’s also important to engage in extreme self-care during all of it so you don’t get exhausted.

Remember that as strong as your fearful thoughts may seem, they are not your intuition. They are the reaction of your psyche to feelings that have been silenced. As painful as this process is, it is nevertheless an opportunity for healing a wound that has been buried for too long.

Give yourself and your body all the tools possible, cognitive, emotional, and physical, to support your healing.

Have you overcome panic attacks without medication, and if so, what methods did you use?

Calm man image via Shutterstock

About Paula M. Jones

Paula M. Jones is the creator of Small Epiphanies: Subtle Insights for Profound Change, a website dedicated to inspiring its followers to live better, more self-aware lives and to experience greater happiness. Her work has been featured on Lipstick&Politics, Positively Positive, and BlogHer. She previously authored Staying Connected, the Hoffman Institute Foundation’s newsletter. Learn more at www.smallepiphanies.co.

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  • Diane Elayne Dees

    I am a psychotherapist with a specialty in treatment of p.d. I also believe that just about all p.d. (if not ALL) can be treated without medication. And I agree, most of the treatment is done through the body. With my clients, I utilize education, breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, and similar relaxation response creators. Sometimes it’s necessary to remove certain blocks (family members who unconsciously sabotage client’s treatment, client’s fear of getting better, etc.) and do a bit of cognitive restructuring, too.

  • ekanost

    Really needed to read this today, thank you for sharing. I especially like the line “Remember that as strong as your fearful thoughts may seem, they are not your intuition.” Very powerful. Just a shout out to say that although it is not always necessary, medication CAN be very helpful for some individuals and there is no shame in taking that step if necessary. Remembering this quote “The Buddha never taught a discourse entitled, ‘Don’t Help Yourself, Continue to Suffer Your Chemical Imbalance,'” from this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lodro-rinzler/meditation-isnt-enough-a-_b_5672580.html

  • Laura

    I need help with panic attacks
    Lately, I am suffering from them, probably due to a couple of bad relationships I have had, especially the last one where he disappeared without warning and blocked me everywhere. I don’t know what to take for the attacks. I would like something natural. Not sure if Bach flowers are any good.

  • Paula M Jones

    This is so good to hear, Diane. I found that various approaches worked at different times and in different “depths” and all helped in one way or another. Interesting point on the removal of various blocks. It is such an interesting process!

  • Paula M Jones

    I’m glad you found it helpful. It took me so long to figure out that my panic was not my intuition – and what a wonderful discovery THAT was! Intuition is a very calm and knowing feeling that is subtle and once felt, unmistakable. Agreed that medication can have its place but I worry that too many people assume there is no other way. I’m also concerned about those who still don’t feel better while on medication – or they don’t feel panic anymore but don’t feel anything good anymore either. There has to be a better way for these people – and I believe there is.

  • Princess Grace

    I used Quanta Freedom Healing technique. It helped. My panic attacks were severe. I cannot even verbalize it. Thank you for this article, it is truly inspiring to read that a person has managed to overcome panic attacks as they are crippling. I started energy and body healing about 3 years ago, and last year started the QFH technique of releasing stuck old emotions causing the panics attacks along with practicing extreme self care. I now ask myself throughout the day ‘how do you feel about this,’ as a way of getting in touch with myself. It never before occurred to me to ask myself how I felt about anything, I just ‘got on with it’ – hence the recurring panic attacks persisted due to trapped emotions. When I started listening to my body and to my inner feelings, the panic subsided. I nurture myself each and every day now, I never before understood that self-love is something to be practiced every single day by being kind and gentle to oneself.

  • Paula M Jones

    Your comment resonated with me a lot. That phrase, “Just get on with it” was spoken many many times in my upbringing. There was never space or time for feeling feelings. I also love the concept of extreme self-care (Cheryl Richardson, yes!) and employ it as well. I sometimes chuckle to myself thankfully that the proper response to my problem involved self-care, rather than ‘just work harder’. I’m glad you found QFH and are using other methods as well. Different methods help address different feelings in different ways, all of which helps. Good luck to you!

  • Hippo Des

    Nice article..I would recommend a book named “Hope and help for your nerves” by Dr Claire weekes for those suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. I never had a single episode of panic attacks after reading this book. There is also an audio series by claire weekes for anxiety which also helped me a lot.

  • Lisa

    I personally love Bach’s rescue remedy. I have a liquid form of it with a dropper. I’m not sure if using it actually helps or if I just believe mentally that by taking it, it does but it’s useful to have it with me in my purse as a comfort just in case. Sorry to hear what you are going through!

  • Joie

    That statement resonates with me as well.. Something I’ve always feared is missing a sign thinking that it’s intuition warning me of some grave issue. To know that intuition is not fear mongering gives me some solace. Thank you for this post!

  • Paula M Jones

    Great recommendation – she seems to approach anxiety from emotional, cognitive and physical perspectives.

  • Paula M Jones

    I’m so glad you found it helpful!

  • A lot of my students struggle with anxiety in one form or another. What really helps is when they learn how to meditate on their anxiety, including panic anxiety. Anxiety is a habit at the end of the day and all habits thrive on lack of conscious awareness. When you meditate on your anxiety you illuminate the underlying habitual reactive thinking that feeds the anxiety, and the more you practice, the more you can break free from these habits. This is one of a number of teachings that we develop during mindfulness practice.

    the Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • Timmie

    I have not always had panic attacks but in my later years they seem to be emerging. bBut guess what? Part of what helps me is understanding that there is a body chemistry aspect to panic attacks. Adrenaline, cortisol, etc you don’t have to understand the whole mechanism: realizing that alone made me understand the effects are not just psychological. Also, to the extent that I can eliminate sugar from my diet, my panic attacks subside.

  • Josh

    This is hands down the most asinine and childish way of thinking about a psychological problem. Just let it go? Why the fuck didn’t I think of that? It’s more complicated than that, and your lack of sympathy and understanding just goes to show how little you actually understand on the topic. you are one of those people that thin “it’s all a state of mind”. The whole treat a mental illness like a physical one. Fucking ass hole.

  • Robin Crazy

    I’m sorry, but this is TOTAL BULL$@&T…, if you suffer from panic attacks, seek PROFESSIONAL HELP, just changing your mindset won’t do it. Mental illnesses are REAL and most of them require medication, be it benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, antihistamines, antidepressants or else, depending on the origin of your anxiety disorder as prescribed by a serious physician, and not a Tarot cards reader.

  • Leesa D. Hagen

    I found the program “Attacking Anxiety” by Lucinda Bassett very helpful! May God bless you! Xoxoxo