How Does CBT Work to Treat Panic Attacks

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

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The Salk Institute for Biological Studies recently discovered a key pathway in mice that could help humans soothe panic disorder symptoms.

There’s no denying that panic attacks can be a debilitating experience. For many individuals, these episodes can severely affect their quality of life.

There is hope through an effective method known as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Are you wondering what CBT for panic attacks involves? Read on to learn how it works to treat panic attacks, its benefits, and more.

Understanding the Full Scope of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are sudden bouts of intense fear or discomfort that peak within minutes. Symptoms may include palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, feelings of choking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, chills, or hot flashes.

These symptoms often mimic those of severe medical conditions, leading many to seek emergency medical treatment. However, panic attacks are a psychological condition that can be effectively managed through specific therapeutic techniques.

A General Overview of Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy is a structured and goal-oriented form of psychotherapy. It hones in on identifying negative thought patterns and behaviors that lead to psychological distress. And subsequently, it helps clients to challenge and replace those thought patterns with more adaptive ones.

How CBT Works for Panic Attack Treatment

CBT for panic attacks often involves several key components. By taking a look at each one, you can better understand how effective this treatment can be.


The first step in CBT is often psychoeducation, where the therapist explains the nature of panic attacks and anxiety to the patient.

Understanding that panic attacks, though uncomfortable, are not dangerous and are a common response to stress can be highly reassuring. This knowledge helps to reduce the fear and stigma associated with panic attacks.

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring involves pushing back against irrational or negative thoughts that contribute to panic attacks. For instance, a person might believe that a rapid heartbeat during a panic attack signifies an impending heart attack.

Through CBT, individuals learn to recognize these thought patterns and reframe them into more rational and less anxiety-provoking thoughts. This process helps minimize the fear and anxiety that comes with panic symptoms.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a fundamental part of CBT for panic attacks. It involves slowly exposing patients to certain feelings of panic in a place that’s both controlled and safe.

This exposure helps to desensitize individuals to these sensations and reduces the fear and avoidance behaviors that often accompany panic attacks. Over time, this leads to a decrease in the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

Breathing and Relaxation Techniques

CBT also incorporates anxiety management techniques such as breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. These techniques help individuals manage the physical symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks.

Learning to control one’s breathing can reduce hyperventilation and other physical symptoms, providing a sense of control during an attack.

Behavioral Experiments

Behavioral experiments are activities designed to test the validity of catastrophic thoughts and beliefs associated with panic attacks.

For example, if someone believes that they will faint during a panic attack, a therapist might guide them through activities to show that this belief is unfounded. These experiments help to weaken the catastrophic thinking that fuels panic attacks.

The Effectiveness of CBT for Panic Attacks

According to a study by Yilmaz and Hocaoglu, CBT has been shown to be highly effective at treating panic attacks. Individuals who undergo CBT experience a sizable reduction in both the frequency and intensity of their panic attacks.

Many people also enjoy improvements in their general quality of life, including better social and occupational abilities.

Long-Term Benefits

One of the major benefits of CBT is its long-term effectiveness. Unlike medication, which often requires ongoing use to maintain benefits, the skills and techniques learned in CBT can provide lasting relief from panic attacks.

Follow-up studies have shown that many individuals who complete CBT maintain their gains for years after treatment ends.

CBT Benefits Beyond Panic Attacks

While CBT is a highly effective form of panic attack treatment, its benefits extend beyond managing panic symptoms.

For example, CBT teaches practical skills that can be applied to various stressors and challenges in life, not just panic attacks.

By learning to identify and solve negative thought patterns, people can better handle their emotions and reduce general anxiety levels.

Successfully managing panic attacks through CBT can boost self-confidence and a sense of control over one’s life.

Improved emotional regulation and coping skills can lead to healthier, more fulfilling relationships with others.

Overcoming Panic Attacks and Regaining Control

Embarking on a journey with CBT can be life-changing for those struggling with panic attacks.

The structured approach of CBT provides a clear path toward overcoming panic attacks and regaining control of one’s life.

Find a Qualified Therapist

Finding a therapist trained in CBT is crucial. Look for licensed mental health professionals with experience in treating panic attacks and anxiety disorders. Many therapists offer online sessions, making it easier to access help.

Commit to the Process

CBT requires active participation and commitment. Regular sessions, usually weekly, and practicing techniques between sessions are essential for success. Be prepared to engage fully in the process and put your trust in the therapeutic journey.

Practice Self-Compassion

Overcoming panic attacks can be challenging, and setbacks may occur. Practicing self-compassion and being patient with yourself is important. Remember that progress is not always linear, but each step forward is a victory.

Use Support Systems

Involve family and friends in your journey. Having a support system can provide encouragement and understanding. Share your goals and progress with them to create a supportive environment.

It’s Time to Seek CBT for Panic Attacks

By receiving CBT for panic attacks, you can start down a path toward recovery and a healthier and happier life overall.

Advanced Behavioral Health offers goal-oriented cognitive behavior therapy. We’re ready to treat panic disorders, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and more.

Do you want to improve your mental health? If so, don’t wait to discuss a custom treatment plan with us today.

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