Panic Attacks: How Can Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Help?

Maggie Morrow Award Winning Therapist
Author: Maggie Morrow, Award Winning Psychotherapist, Counsellor & Life Coach
Last updated: 16th March 2023

Panic Attack CBT

It happened again. One minute you were trying to fall asleep, and the next thing you knew, you were sitting up straight in your bed struggling to catch your breath. You started to pace, opened up a window, lay down, and sat back up again, but nothing seemed to help. As your heart pounded rapidly, your anxiety grew to the point that you wondered if this was the end for you. About 20 minutes later, however, you were still alive and able to see the incident for what it really was: another panic attack.

There are few things in life that are more frightening than experiencing a panic attack. This might be something you can brush off if it happens once or twice, but if you suffer from regular panic attacks, you need to find a good solution so you can take control of your life and not live in fear over when the next attack will occur. One way that a lot of people are successfully dealing with panic attacks is by turning to cognitive behavioural therapy.


What Is A Panic Attack?


A panic attack is a sudden surge of intense symptoms that might include some of the following:

Physical Symptoms

  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Chest pains
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Hot or cold flashes

Mental Symptoms

  • A sudden spike in anxiety, with or without cause
  • Feeling detached from your surroundings
  • An intense fear of going crazy or dying

The attack can be triggered by a specific situation or it can strike out of the blue, and it typically lasts somewhere in the range of five to twenty minutes.

During the panic attack, your mind perceives a threat, which causes your body to go into fight-or-flight mode. Your body tries to take in extra oxygen, which can cause rapid breathing. In addition, hormones such as adrenaline are released, resulting in a rapid heartbeat.

Panic attacks are very frightening when they occur, and although they are not usually physically harmful, some people report feeling like they are going to die when they are in the throes of a panic attack. As a result, some sufferers are afraid to leave the house out of fear that an attack might strike in public.


What Is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?


Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, is a type of treatment that examines the relationships between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and helps people uncover certain patterns of thinking that result in beliefs or actions that are destructive.

CBT does not entail endless hours of lying on a sofa and telling a therapist about your childhood. Instead, it is a goal-orientated therapy that focuses on a specific problem. It is also an active intervention in the sense that patients are expected to practice the skills they learn outside of the therapist’s office.


How Can CBT Help With Panic Attacks?


Even though panic attacks manifest themselves physically, they are a chiefly psychological issue, and getting to the root of the issue is the best way to keep panic attacks at bay. A CBT therapist can examine the thought patterns that trigger or sustain a panic attack and help sufferers reframe their fears and anxieties in a more realistic light.

Treating panic attacks with cognitive behavioural therapy typically involves a frank assessment of the following components:

  • Your thoughts leading up to a panic attack
  • How you react when an attack occurs
  • The thoughts that run through your mind during the attack itself

Your therapist will help you replace negative thought patterns with more balanced ones that are less likely to trigger panic attacks.

Much of its success as a treatment for panic attacks lies in the fact that CBT teaches people useful thought management skills that can be applied to the situations they encounter in daily life. Your therapist can also suggest breathing techniques and other coping mechanisms that can alleviate the symptoms when a panic attack does strike.


How Effective Is It?


CBT is believed to be one of the most effective psychological treatments for panic attacks. Although no single treatment works for everybody, its high success rate makes it a great starting point for most individuals. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) suggests between 7 and 14 hours of CBT over a period of four months on average, but your therapist can suggest a timescale that is appropriate for the severity of your problem.

The next time a panic attack sets in, try to remind yourself that you are not in danger and that the sensation will pass. If you want to minimise the frequency and severity of future panic attacks, consult with a therapist who specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy.


Further Self-Help and Resources on Panic and Anxiety


10 Tips for Managing Panic Attacks

How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Can Help to Treat Anxiety Disorders

Helpful Guides About Therapy

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