Resisting a panic attack is the most natural thing in the world. It’s an animal instinct, direct from our lizard brain. That’s the brain stem, the oldest part of the brain. It reacts with fear and/or aggression to any perceived threat. Unfortunately, that includes threats that don’t actually exist. Our lizard brain is pretty dumb. The good news is, it can be retrained to know a real threat from a false one. That’s the premise of the Panic Away program.
It’s not all good news, of course. Panic Away is based on a radical approach to anxiety treatment, something called paradoxical intention. Paradoxical intention bypasses the lizard brain completely by enlisting the help of the conscious mind to actually move towards the feelings of panic, not away from them.
Sounds crazy, right?
Have you ever tried to solve a problem, and you stumbled on a solution that was totally counter-intuitive? Did you analyze the situation afterwards, and the counter-intuitive solution actually made sense? Panic Away works and feels just like that.
Panic Away Program Creator Barry McDonagh
Meet Barry McDonagh, creator of Panic Away. You may have already seen him. His program has been around for six or seven years. He’s also been on a lot of talk shows.
His panic attacks started in college (so did mine). Barry took a radical approach to end his panic attacks. He figured out that the key to ending panic disorder was by doing the exact opposite of what his stupid lizard brain wanted. The brain stems of panic attack sufferers mostly want to hide.
But that’s not what Barry did.
What We Resist Persists
Barry discovered that resisting the fear during a panic attack made his attacks worse, not better. And his panic attacks began to happen more often. He became afraid of more stuff as panic disorder destroyed his ability to participate in life. He suddenly wasn’t just afraid of specific things like classrooms, driving, flying, etc.
He also began to have a new fear: the fear of having a panic attack. He was suffering from a fear of fear.
A fear of fear? Huh?
Fear of fear is where panic disorder goes downhill fast. It’s being afraid of having a panic attack, especially in a situation where you feel trapped. The shame and embarrassment of panicking in public effectively keeps you locked indoors. It becomes increasingly difficult to participate in more and more aspects of your life that don’t involve just staying home.
Panic disorder spreads through people’s lives like a noxious weed. It can (and does) lead to agoraphobia, for many millions all over the world.
Agoraphobia is basically terminal panic disorder. If it were cancer, it would be the final stage right before it killed you. It’s essentially cancer of the spirit. It’s cancer of meaning, cancer of purpose. It’s what happens when you can no longer leave home. Home is no longer a sanctuary. Home has become your prison.
It’s a terrible disease. I’ve lived it. Your body doesn’t die, but the you inside of it does. Your existence becomes devoid of any sort of point. Like any other mammal, we also die if we’re trapped inside too long.
That’s what fear of fear is. It can be (and is) a fatal disease.
The REAL Cause of Most Panic Attacks
In the Panic Away program, Barry McDonagh says he believes most anxiety attacks are the result of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. It’s not true in every case, of course.
But a lot of us are just simply depleted and worn out. Work, kids, relationships, hobbies, friends: They take their toll on us in different ways.
Most of us would probably at least agree that the world is too damn fast. It’s too crowded, too hectic. And it often feels like too damn much.
Barry believes we become more sensitized to fear as we progress through life tired and running on fumes. Our nervous systems become more attuned to potential threats. We start looking for threats. We ruminate about the terrible things that could happen, even though they don’t.
We also become more sensitive to the physical sensations that accompany fear. We start to worry about that, too. We start worrying about our physical health. It’s yet another fear, stacked on top of the anxious fears we already suffer from.
Eventually, we begin to mistake some sensations as threats to our survival. This can include internal stimuli that a “normal” person might not even notice. Our stupid lizard brain has managed to trap us inside a feedback loop of fear and then the avoidance of fear.
The 21-7 Technique, Part I
The 21-7 technique is the core of the Panic Away program. It has two parts. Part one teaches you to stop a panic attack in 21 seconds flat. Part two reduces your overall anxiety levels in 7 minutes per day.
Our lizard brain’s first reaction at the start of a panic attack is to run.
Danger! Flee! Get away! Get out! Hide!
The problem is, there’s not any real danger. Panic attacks can’t actually harm you. Having a panic attack in the grocery store cannot harm you. You will not die if you have a panic attack on the subway. You will not cause an accident, kill anyone, or lose your mind if you have a panic attack in the car.
End Panic Attacks in the Moment by Demanding MORE
As I mentioned earlier, a panic attack is like a feedback loop. We’ve all heard feedback through a sound system, like at a wedding after-party or during a live concert. Feedback often starts as a low rumble, increases to an annoying whine, then quickly escalates to an ear-splitting shriek that drowns out the entire world.
Panic attacks can follow a similar pattern. They begin as a sense of disquiet, then escalate via the physical sensations of panic like trembling, nausea, sweating, dizziness, feeling paralyzed, etc. If you have panic attacks, it’s likely you can feel one coming on, at least some of the time. It is, or course, also possible to have panic attacks that happen without warning.
The 21 Second Countdown
Instead of fleeing or resisting the rising tide of your panic, the Panic Away program encourages you to lean in. Demand more.
Don’t abandon your loaded shopping cart and run out of the supermarket. Don’t flee the subway car as soon as the doors open, racing up the station steps.
Stand your ground. Let those emotions and physical sensations hit you like a wave crashes against a huge rock.
Demand the panic to do it’s worst. Demand that it get worse.
And tell it that it has only 21 seconds to do it. If it’s going to make you pass out, it has 21 seconds to put you on the ground. If it’s going to kill you, your heart had better not still be beating on the count of 22. You don’t run. You challenge it — welcome it, even. If your panic is itching for a fight, tell it to BRING IT! NOW!
Then watch as something amazing happens…
Demanding more from a panic attack is hard. It’s especially hard the first few times you do it. You’re challenging an instinctive behavioral pattern of running from your panic, a habituated response you may have had for years. But you’ll find that standing up to panic reveals its true nature. It’s a paper tiger, and it always was.
The 21-7 Technique, Part II
Eliminate Generalized Anxiety in 7 Minutes per Day
There’s a strong correlation between panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Generalized anxiety is characterized by incessant, constant worry. The worry can be about what could happen in the future, or an endless revisiting of past events, examining them obsessively for one’s perceived flaws.
Panic attacks can cause periods of generalized anxiety because of the anticipation of having another attack. I believe the reverse is also true: People with generalized anxiety are more prone to panic attacks due to having higher levels of background anxiety. That’s why it’s important that the successful treatment of panic attacks include treatment of generalized anxiety as well.
The 7 Minute Exercise
The 7 minute exercise is a breathing and progressive relaxation exercise. It teaches you how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved in sleep and induces a state of relaxation and calm.
The exercise uses what’s called a heart-link. A heart-link is a memory of a time where you experienced a deep connection like unconditional love or a profound sense of belonging.
People’s common heart-links include their children, parents, and partners, although any deep loving bond you’ve ever felt can become your heart-link. For example, people have used faith, nature, and pets as heart-links too.
Combining your heart-link with a specific breathing pattern and a bit of visualization gradually switches off your stress response in a few minutes.
Practicing the 7 minute exercise two or three times per day will quickly reduce that nagging worry and sense of unease so many of us anxiety-prone people live with. I found that the exercise not only reduced my general anxiety, it also made my panic attacks less intense, and happen less frequently.
The Science Behind the Panic Away Program
The Panic Away program is rooted in both psychology and neurobiology. Neurobiology is the study of both human biology and neuroscience.
The psychology behind Panic Away is an adaptation of the work of Dr. Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a neurologist and Holocaust survivor who founded a branch of psychology called Logotherapy.
The heart of Frankl’s anxiety treatment via Logotherapy is the concept of paradoxical intention. He discovered the intentional practice of one’s neurosis actually reduced the power the neurosis had on the sufferer.
In the case of panic attacks, the neurosis is the avoidance of panic attacks themselves. That’s why Panic Away is based on confronting your panic attacks instead of avoiding them.
Panic Away’s tool for reducing generalized anxiety (The 7 Minute Exercise) is based in neurobiology. For example, deep breathing and positive visualization both trigger the vagus nerve, which is the main route of the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the part of the nervous system that induces relaxation and feelings of calm.
When the vagus nerve is activated, heart rate slows down, blood pressure drops, and the body goes into a state of physical calm.
The use of the heart-link in the 7 Minute Exercise increases the brain’s production of a hormone called oxytocin, which also calms the mind and body. If oxytocin sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because it’s also known as the “love drug.” Oxytocin plays a central role in affection and social/sexual bonding in humans.
Panic Away Program: Pros vs Cons
Panic Away WORKS…IF you’re really committed to using it during a panic attack, which is hard at first for some people. There is no “quick fix” to end chronic panic attacks. But thank God we don’t always have to be driven just by our stupid lizard brain either.