If you type in “what to do when having a panic attack?” in the popular search engines, countless tips appear, such as “call a friend“, “drink water“, “do breathing exercises“. In fact, these are (more or less) helpful strategies to make a panic attack as comfortable as possible. Distraction, safety behaviors, avoidance, and escape thus seem to be effective methods, but these very behaviors maintain anxiety and panic in the long run. Find out why in this article.
How do fears and panic attacks develop?
According to learning theory, our fear center primarily links stimuli with each other and thus learns from experience. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do this very rationally. If, for example, you have a panic attack while sitting on a bus, these two stimuli (bus & panic) can be linked together. So your fear center has learned from this experience: riding a bus = panic. Since your fear center only means well with you and wants to protect you, it stores bus riding (which in itself is not a danger) as dangerous and thus triggers fear the next time you ride a bus so that you can get to safety. In psychology, this is called classical conditioning.
Why do fears and panics persist?
If a certain behavior is now followed by a certain consequence, your fear center also derives a learning experience from this. In psychology, this is called operant conditioning. If you avoid taking the bus or flee as soon as you feel uncomfortable, the consequence is that you will not have a panic attack. This experience solidifies your fear center’s belief that it must continue to protect you from riding the bus at all costs. This seems beneficial at first, since avoidance/escape = no anxiety/panic. However, this deprives your fear center of the opportunity to have a corrective experience. That is, the experience that nothing bad happens when riding the bus, and thus there is no reason to be afraid.
The same principle applies to distraction and safety behavior. If, for example, you always have something to drink or medication with you when riding the bus (safety behavior), call a friend or do breathing exercises (distractions), your fear center mistakenly learns that it needs these aids to avert fear. You become dependent on your tools, so to speak. If you don’t have them available, the anxiety will start again. In addition, distraction makes your anxiety last much longer in the situation. As you can see, this is not a long-term and sustainable solution.
The good news is: what has been learned can also be unlearned or relearned through corrective experiences! Unfortunately, this does not happen overnight, but requires time and active confrontation exercises. But it can be done!
Corrective experiences and confrontation exercises
If we want to cross elements off our fear list, the principle applies: wait and do nothing! In a confrontation, you specifically go into a situation that triggers fear for you and remain in it until your fear has calmed down on its own, without distractions and safety behavior. You can think of your fear a bit like a child having a tantrum. The main thing that helps is to wait it out and do nothing. Let the panic run wild and wait until it gets tired all by itself.
If our fear center increasingly experiences that the panic subsides on its own and that there is no concrete danger in the confrontation situations, the process of habituation begins. Your fear center learns from these corrective experiences I have nothing to fear!
Mindable supports you in getting your fear center used to fear-inducing situations step by step through targeted confrontation and reducing panic in the long term. We accompany you into an independent life – free of fear.
Want to know more? Check out our module What keeps my fear going? in the Mindable app. How does a confrontation work? – You can also find a module on this in our app.