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

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What is Cognitive-Behavior Therapy?

            Cognitive-behavior therapy has been shown in numerous studies to be the treatment of choice for anxiety disorders.  It is particularly effective in helping people overcome panic attacks, with about 80% to 85% of people becoming panic free, usually within eight treatment sessions.

Cognitive-behavior therapy has two components: identifying and changing the distorted thinking patterns that maintain anxiety (cognitive therapy), and desensitizing anxiety through exposure to feared situations (behavior therapy). The relative emphasis put on each of these depends on the nature of your problem.  For example, specific phobias, such as a fear of heights,  are very effectively treated by exposure therapy alone, whereas panic disorder without  agoraphobia is very successfully treated by cognitive therapy alone.  If you have a significant amount of agoraphobic avoidance along with your panic attacks, then you will need to work both on changing your thinking and exposing yourself to the situations you fear. 

I would now like to explain some of the principles that are used to help people understand and overcome panic attacks, so that you may use them to gain mastery over your panic attacks.

What Really Are Panic Attacks?

Although panic attacks may seem as if they come out of the blue, they are actually a product of your own thinking.  When you break them down into their separate components, you can achieve mastery over them.

A panic attack is really nothing more than bodily sensations of anxiety and a catastrophic misinterpretation of those sensations as dangerous.  Your belief that you are in danger results in increased anxiety, which then leads to more sensations and more catastrophic thoughts, creating a vicious cycle between bodily sensations, distorted thoughts, and anxiety, which can rather quickly result in a panic attack.  The real problem is actually your mistaken belief that you are in danger not the panic itself since panic is in fact an appropriate emotional reaction when you are convinced that you may be in danger. However, your belief is untrue, and when you understand this on a deeper level, you will master your panic.

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