Coping with panic attacks

We all have the potential to handle our own feelings of emergency.  But help, at such times, can be extremely valuable.  Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

Panic is a messenger.  But it is a messenger with a particular way of going about things.


Those who are susceptible to attacks of panic will know that there are specific physical symptoms associated with it.  These can include:

  • Chest pains
  • Fast or irregular heart
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling faint
  • Feeling very scared
Once the panic response has been triggered, it is often hard to regain a sense of control over one’s own body.  And because the mind takes at least some of its cues from the body, a cycle can arise where the mind decides that there must be danger, because the body is expressing it.  Therefore the mind sends more danger signals to the body, and the body sends more danger signs to the mind.


Panic is also an expression of a particular relationship with time.  One of the easiest way to panic someone, is to give them something meaningful to do, and then give them too little time to do it.  Result: overwhelming pressure in the mind.  Some people are more susceptible to this than others.  Ironically, those who care the most, can end up feeling panic the most, since they experience strong wishes to get meaningful activities completed.


When panic arises, it can be ‘free-floating anxiety’ (which doesn’t really need a reason to arise, it’s just an anxious energy waiting inside), or a response to a trigger.  Whether you trace it to a tendency inside you, or a trigger outside you, there are a few ways of responding that can reduce the symptoms.


Firstly, imagine that panic is a person.  Personifying it can help us to decide how to respond.  What would you do if a person was shouting fearful thoughts at you, shaking your body, and fudging up your brain.  Options include:

  • If the effect on you is too damaging, then leave the current environment and find somewhere safe.  This is consistent with the natural flight response, and enables us to enjoy a period of relative peace.
  • If you can cope, then you can sit the anxious body down, make it a drink, and chat things through with it.  This can involve writing a journal, or, if you prefer, writing a list of what concerns you.  A mind map is also a good way of allowing a channel of communication with the anxious self.
  • If you want to be more assertive and direct, then you could choose to confront the anxious body with ‘tough love’, and ask it to behave while you achieve some order.  This is similar to the effect of a shepherd on nervous animals, where a word or two, or a distracting action or two, can help corral instinct into a safe area or pen.
This consolidates into three main responses:

  • Escape, or refuge, from anxious thoughts
  • Analysis of, or empathy with, anxious thoughts
  • Confrontation against, or standing up to, anxious thoughts

An experienced counsellor will have been with clients during panic attacks.  A counsellor will observe the main response of the client.

Some will express the wish to escape, or may even run from the room or terminate a session early.  This is more likely early in a counselling relationship, when the client may not have established a sense of safety in the room.

Some will become extremely ‘enmeshed’ in their own anxious thoughts, expressing a sense of entanglement and confusion, as well as the above physical symptoms.  Others may try to ‘attack’ their own panic, telling themselves they are being silly; or even blame something around them, such as noise, or traffic, for their state of mind.

A really good counsellor will help to provide a sense that the session can act as a refuge from the world, and is an extremely safe place to be with one’s own experience.  They will also be extremely attentive, offering an environment of acute empathy, and help with analysing situations or symptoms as they are being experienced.  Finally, a good counsellor can help to create temporary assistance for the client’s wish for peace, helping them to resist panic just enough to begin to get a purchase on it.

Eventually, after several sessions, a client can often internalise the counsellor’s approach, and do it for themselves.  Thus, they learn to create a space of refuge in their own minds, to empathise and analyse for themselves, and to resist anxious extremes.  It is really quite an honour for a counsellor or psychotherapist to witness such a development over time.

Usually, the client has the capacity to do all this, and the sessions act as a semistructured reminder of personal power.  A good counsellor will anticipate that, eventually, the client will take back their own strength, and be able to empower themselves.


Today, if you experience extreme panic, or even mild fear, explore, if you can, a few options:

  • First, seek refuge and make yourself as safe as you need to be
  • Second, when it is safe to do so, begin to empathise with, and analyse, your situation.  Use friends/counsellors as appropriate
  • Third, if necessary and helpful, stand up more directly and confrontationally to certain anxious thoughts, to reduce them to a manageable size for the moment


Panic attacks are heavily physical spirals of anxiety, in which the body and mind can escalate a heightened fear response.

Three possibilities, in order to regain control, are:

  1. Seeking safe refuge
  2. Undertaking empathic analysis, with assistance as appropriate
  3. Challenging or distracting some residual anxiety to make it manageable
A good friend or counsellor can help to provide a safe environment in which these three core skills can be learned and developed.  In good time, all of us have the potential to do these three things for ourselves.