Re-framing Panic as a Success


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Before reading this essay, please read “Mastering Panic,” which will introduce you to the cognitive-behavioral approach.

At the core of panic disorder is the fear of panic.  A big part of this fear of panic is the fear of failure.  As long as we think of a panic response as a failure, it’s difficult to overcome the fear of failure.  No matter how much healing work we do, we can never completely control our panic response, just as we can't completely control any other emotion.

The answer to this dilemma is to begin to challenge the time-worn idea that a panic experience represents failure.

The top researchers in this field tend to define success in terms of clients not experiencing panic.  If I was conducting research at a clinic, I'd probably do the same thing.  You have to publish studies and verify the effectiveness of your program.  You have to quantify the results.  It's all very logical.

But there is a deeper level of healing.

Still having panic disorder means still having the fear of panic, even if our panic responses are few and far between.   Being cured means no longer having this fear – no longer caring whether or not we have a panic response.   But how do we get there?  How do we ever cross this "great divide"?

The answer is one last, big cognitive re-structure.  We achieve our cure by re-framing the panic experience as a success.

A big part of the panic response is the thought:  "Oh my God, I'm having a terrible failure."  How could we not have that thought if we've been defining our success and failure this way?

By starting to re-define and re-frame the panic experience as a success, we take the wind right out of the sail of the panic response.  It's the last cognitive re-structure, and it leads us to cure.

We are not used to thinking of  panic as a success.  The "old mold" of our thinking – panic as failure – keeps the panic disorder going and gives it power.  Beginning to think of a panic response as a success breaks this mold.  If you break the mold, you don't have panic disorder anymore, because an essential "glue" that's holding panic disorder together is the thought of failure.  Interrupt that old belief that panic is a failure, and the whole mold of panic disorder falls apart!

There are some pretty paradoxical aspects of healing from panic disorder and agoraphobia.  By doing what we fear, our fear is greatly reduced.  By intentionally bringing on aspects of our panic response (see “MAP” essay), we learn to overcome panic.  By inviting panic instead of resisting it, we begin to experience a new level of safety and trust.  Finally, by starting to re-frame the panic experience as a success, we begin to realize our cure.

Looking back on my own healing process, the panic experiences I had along the way actually were successes.  They led me to the biggest insights.  Learning that I could deal well with any experience of panic was very profound, and I couldn't have learned this without experiencing some panic!

When I achieved my recovery in 1998, I started traveling, which was an incredibly beautiful experience.  On my trips, whenever I had apprehension about panicking, I reminded myself that a panic experience would be a success.  If I experienced a panic response, I would even give myself a big reward.  I thought of a number of rewards I could give myself for panicking.  The one I settled on was: an extra week of traveling to one of my favorite places! 

Reframing panic as a success was the “last straw” for my panic disorder.  I had worked through and resolved the sensations and scary thoughts that made up my “panic pizza”.  Now, I was eliminating the fear of failure.  There was nothing left for my panic to feed on – no scary thoughts and no failure thoughts!

By allowing panic, I began my healing.  By inviting panic, I learned to overcome it.  And by counting panic as a success, I achieved my cure.


Index to "Short Essays on Healing"

Index to "Mastering Panic"


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