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Anxiety disorders are all too common these days. They encompass a wide range of problems from social phobias to compulsive disorders. Many are characterized by panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden, overwhelming attacks of fear accompanied by severe physical reactions.

The physical manifestations of panic attacks can include rapid heartbeat, dizziness, shallow breathing or hyperventilation, an inability to move and an overwhelming sense of impending doom. Sufferers report that they feel like they are dying. These attacks can be very debilitating, forcing the sufferer to avoid situations that cause them. This avoidance can narrow the sufferer’s world to such a degree that normal functioning becomes almost impossible.

Yet, panic attacks are treatable with a combination of psychotherapy, drugs, self-education and behavior modification. Psychotherapy is highly recommended and a therapist specializing in anxiety disorders can be found by contacting the National Institute of Mental Health. You can also contact your local Information and Referral service for information.

Learning how to manage and sidestep panic attacks is a big step in the recovery process. This can be done in stages, each lesson building on the previous. This is only one way to handle an attack; there are many approaches you can explore. It's much more effective to practice the following steps under the supervision of a therapist.

1. Step One: Learn deep relaxation techniques. There are many books and audiocassette programs that can help you with this. They usually involve lying or sitting in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. You want to get your breathing to be slow, deep and regular. Once you have achieved this, focus your mind on relaxing your feet. Mentally see the muscles relaxing. Tighten the muscles in your feet and slowly release the tension. Work your way up your body, tightening and slowly relaxing each set of muscles, all the while keeping your breathing slow and deep. Practice this kind of relaxation regularly until you are able to achieve relaxation fairly automatically.

2. Step Two: Make a list of the situations that trigger panic attacks. Beside this list, figure out the worst thing that could realistically happen to you in that situation. You will most likely discover that there are not many serious dangers in the situations where you have panic attacks.

3. Step Three: Pick out one of the situations on your list to work on. Achieve a state of deep relaxation and begin to visualize yourself in the triggering situation. Develop the situation slowly. Your goal is to visualize yourself dealing with the situation successfully. You might even want to try scripting the situation ahead of time, giving the script a successful outcome. If at any point in the visualization you feel a panic attack coming on, stop the session, and go back to doing the relaxation techniques.

4. Step Four: Continue to practice the relaxation and visualization until you are able to consistently visualize the entire situation with a positive outcome. This will take effort and time, but keep with it, this method does work.

5. Step Five: Now it’s time to face the situation you have been preparing for. Take this step very slowly. It’s best if you have a buddy that can go with you. As you prepare to enter the situation, get into a deeply relaxed state. Enter the situation and proceed as far as you can with it. If you feel a panic attack coming on, focus all of your attention on deep breathing. You may leave the situation at any time; you have not failed at all.

6. Continue to practice all the steps. As you practice, you will be able to get farther and farther into the triggering situation until you are finally able to go through the whole situation without panic. Every time you feel panic coming on, focus all of your attention on your breathing. Close your eyes to cut out distractions. It is impossible to have a panic attack and do deep breathing at the same time. You are working to replace the panic response with the relaxation response. You may find it effective to add positive self-talk to the routine. Positive reinforcement will help you to remain focused and stay relaxed.

7. Step Seven: Continue to practice this method to sustain its effectiveness.

Learning to conquer panic allows you to take back the control of your life. It takes work and dedication, but in the long run, you are rewarded with freedom.