Don't Panic! Strategies For Helping Panic Attack Sufferers - Hypnogenesis - Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy Journal

Go to content

Don't Panic! Strategies For Helping Panic Attack Sufferers
By Jon Rhodes (hons) Dip.Hyp.

It's normal, natural and common to feel panicky from time to time. You may be late for work, think you can hear a burglar downstairs, or be about to sit an exam. These feelings are normal and pass fairly quickly. They are simply down to the ‘flight or fight' responses that our body has been equipped with to prepare for potentially threatening situations. The heart beats quicker and the digestive system closes down in order to allow the body to concentrate on the perceived threat.

A panic attack has similarities with this, but there are notable differences. A panic attack often occurs when there is no obvious physical threat, and the feelings are stronger than ‘normal' panic. It is simply like a false alarm – like an annoying smoke detector that goes off at the wrong times. The problem is that our ‘alarm system' was designed millions of years ago when we had many more potential dangers to deal with. We have a lot less potential threats to deal with now, but our body does not know this. Today we have lots of different stresses that we are not designed to deal with.

A large number of people have experienced panic attacks at some point in their lives. Some people may get them daily, whereas others may get them every few months or even years. They are fairly common and are not a sign of mental illness.

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Heart pounding, beating fast, or missing a beat
  • Chest pains
  • Breathing fast or feeling short of breath
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers toes or lips
  • Feeling sick
  • Feeling faint
  • Feelings of terror
  • Feelings of unreality, like you are not really there
  • Feeling anxious in situations where you have had a panic attack before

People often think negative thoughts, which are untrue, such as:

  • I am having a heart attack
  • I am going to be sick
  • I cannot breath
  • I am going to make an idiot of myself
  • I have to get out of here now

After experiencing a panic attack people often escape the situation and avoid it in the future. This can be detrimental as it may re-enforce the fear. The mind will realise that something ‘bad' happened the last time you were in a particular situation, and the longer you leave it before facing the situation again, the more the mind is convinced the same will happen again. This can become a self fulfilling prophecy, and take hold of you in a way similar to a phobia.

I have found that treating sufferers of panic attacks in a similar way to treating phobias seems to be a very successful option. The ultimate aim has to be to empower the client to face their fears. A good old fashioned ego boost is often a useful first port of call. I have also found that systematic desensitisation is very useful. For those not familiar, you work with your client to construct a hierarchy of fears. Usually I have a scale going in tens from 0 to 100. At zero this is where there is no fear (perhaps sitting at home with a cup of tea), and one hundred represents maximum fear (at a supermarket checkout for example). The patient is guided to a medium level of trance and a ‘yes' ‘no' IMR is installed (left index finger ‘yes', right index finger ‘no'). You then simply walk the patient through the hierarchy, giving lots of calming and relaxing suggestions, and moving them to the next step when they report that they are feeling calm and relaxed.

However I do not feel that hypnotherapy is enough. The hypnotherapy can help them face their fears, but if they do not physically do this fairly soon after the therapy (within 3 weeks) then they are often back to square one. To give good quality therapy, one must also work out a strategy to help integrate them back into the places and situations that they experienced panic attacks.

I usually try to ‘dilute' the situation. For example a patient who has panic attacks in the supermarket may wish to initially travel to the supermarket but not go in. The next session they may wish to go inside, but not buy anything. Next they may wish to buy one item. The patient may or may not need your support with this. They may wish to have you go with them, or a friend, or have the option of telephone support. Positive feedback is very useful when they have pushed themselves through a barrier. Congratulate them and point out to them that they are OK – still alive and well! By challenging their fears they can become more in control, and the attacks should become less and less common.

If the patient starts having a panic attack, try and encourage them not to quickly escape the situation. This will reinforce the fear and set them back. Try to persuade them to remain in the place they are having a panic attack until it passes. This is really helpful in breaking the cycle of fear. Reassure them and remind them that they have had panic attacks before and nothing bad is going to happen. It may be useful to teach them breathing exercises for this eventuality, or give them a post hypnotic suggestion for relaxation when they say a particular keyword. If they are adamant that they must leave, then do not force the issue. This ‘flooding' could traumatise them and set them back further. More relaxation work may be needed if they opt out, and half a step back when they are ready to again confront their fears.

I have had lots of success in dealing with panic attacks, and believe that it is mostly down to the leg work in confronting their fears. An action plan of some description is needed after the trance work. I think that this is crucial for successful rehabilitation. The patient may or may not be strong enough to do this by himself, but the issue needs addressing. The patient should be made aware that they must quickly face the situations again, and should be offered some support if they feel they need it. Hypnotherapy on it's own is usually not enough.

Jon Rhodes Llb (hons) D Hyp.
Jon is a professional clinical hypnotherapist who runs the free hypnotherapy and meditation site at Visit now for free hypnosis and meditation recordings and articles.

Back to content