Using CBT to Overcome Panic Attacks
By Roger Tilton, Ph.D.
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A Case Example

Sam provides a good example of how panic attacks are overcome in this way.  For 15 years, Sam had feared driving on the freeway and was only able to drive for 5 miles, in the right lane.

It turned out that what Sam really feared was that he might have a panic attack and lose control of his car.  Even though he had many times experienced panic attacks on the freeway without this ever occurring, he still believed that it might yet happen.

I explained to Sam that panic attacks never lead to a loss of control.  He told me that no one had ever told him this, and by the end of the session he said that he believed me.  

The next time he drove on the freeway, he became anxious and again had the thought that he might lose control of his car.  However, while he still believed this was possible, his degree of belief in the chance of this happening had dropped from about 95% to 70%, which resulted in a noticeable decrease in his anxiety.

During the next week, when he drove on the freeway, his degree of belief dropped to 50%, with the intensity of his anxiety decreasing further.  The following week, his degree of belief was at 25%, with only mild anxiety.  

After 6 weekly therapy sessions, Sam no longer believed that anxiety could cause him to lose control of his car, and he no longer feared having a panic attack, which he now realized was harmless.  At this point, he was able to drive alone on the freeway on a 120-mile round trip without anxiety.  He even drove a good part of the way in the fast lane something he had completely avoided for the past 15 years.

Some Important Points To Remember

         A thought in itself cannot make you anxious.  You have to believe the thought, and you have the power to choose whether or not to believe it.


         In order to have a panic attack, you have to tell yourself something that is not true.  The truth is that panic attacks are not dangerous.


         When you have a panic attack, you temporarily lose your perspective and don't see the truth.  When you regain your perspective, your panic attack will end abruptly.


         What people really fear is what they imagine a panic attack will lead to.  However, the only thing a panic attack ever leads to is the panic attack ending.


         Look at a panic attack as an opportunity to master panic attacks. 


         Taking an objective perspective and reminding yourself of the truth at times of high anxiety is the key to overcoming panic attacks.

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