Panic - This is NOT a Catastrophe

by Mark Sichel, LCSW

Now we are continuing the "thinking" part of the relaxation work. Remember how we explained that clear thinking can lead to calm breathing and vice versa? (If not, review Relaxation Techniques: Breathing Exercises and then come back to this page.) We're now going to demonstrate an essential component to controlling your thoughts in order to empower you to control your bodily responses.

Although not a relaxation technique per se, there is one simple thought that will calm you down immediately:

Your panic attack is not a catastrophe.

This panic attack or anxiety state in which you find yourself feels like a catastrophe, but in reality, it is not.

If you think about it, a catastrophe is a situation which won't get better or which will drastically alter your and your loved one's lives in a profoundly and perhaps chronically negative way.

In contrast:
  • Panic attacks end, usually within ten minutes.
  • People get over panic attacks; you don't have a life sentence of panic.
  • Your panic attack is not effecting the safety or health of someone you love.

    Therefore, your panic is NOT a catastrophe. It certainly feels bad, but it will end; you will not suffer for the rest of your life.

    People's tendency to feel like they are in the midst of a catastrophe in situations that are serious and upsetting, but not necessarily catastrophic, is called "catastrophizing" by psychologists. Beyond helping to achieve some perspective on the reality of panic attacks, understanding the concept of "catastrophizing" is also a useful tool when you are not feeling panicked, but need to cope with an unpleasant situation.

    People tend to catastrophize when they lack mature coping skills. This is not a criticism. Many, many people manage to make it to adulthood without ever developing the coping techniques they will need to face adversity. Whatever the reasons that might have caused a given person to grow-up without coping techniques, the good news is that they can be learned. In the meantime, learning to get a hold of catastrophic thinking is a first step in banishing your panic and putting you in the position to develop functional coping mechanisms.

    People catastrophize because of a phenomenon known as "regression." When we are upset and we lack coping techniques, we regress: go back to a time in our lives (childhood) when our thinking was very black and white. Black and white leaves no room for gray, so something is either perfect or else it is a catastrophe -- there is no room for the middle ground of experience. In the next two lessons, we will be discussing regression and healthy ways to overcome the instinct to regress.

    If you would like to continue the Panic Disorder lessons and learn about regression, please read Regression.

    If you would like to learn more about black and white thinking before you continue with your Panic Disorder lessons, please read Black and White Thinking and then return to the Panic Disorder lessons.

    If you would like to start at the beginning of the Panic Disorder lessons, please read What to Expect When You are Diagnosed with a Panic Disorder.


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