What Panic Sufferers Can Learn From a Navy Psychologist

When overwhelmed - like a deer in the headlights - only training can stop panic.

Posted Aug 22, 2019

In a state of panic, we don't think clearly . . . if at all. One client said, "In a panic attack, if you asked my name, I couldn't tell you." When overwhelmed, the brain freezes. We are like a deer in the headlights.

I took a friend out on the balcony overlooking Saint Mark's Square in Venice.

Andrew Balet/Wikimedia
Source: Andrew Balet/Wikimedia

I love the view. You can see the plaza, the outdoor cafes, the bell tower, the harbor, and all of Venice in the distance. The moment we stepped out onto the balcony, she shouted, "Get me out of here."

That confused me, We were out. Then I realized what she wanted. She wanted to get "out" of being outside. The expansive view was too much for her. I took her back inside. She was livid. She said, "You knew better than to do that!"

Well, I didn't. But the other thing I didn't know was that, in a state of panic, she could not turn around and go in through the door she just used to come out. Which illustrates my point. In a state of panic, we are like a deer in the headlights. We are too overwhelmed to help ourselves, even in the simplest way: to go inside through to door you just used to get outside.

Source: Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(3):290-298. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.3.290

That's why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is ineffective in treating panic. In a state of panic, a person has no cognitive resources available to apply the sage precepts of CBT.

According to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, only 17% of panic sufferers treated with CBT become panic free. In this graph, the dark gray bars show remission using CBT at three, six, nine, and twelve months. The light gray bars show remission using CBT and medication combined.

What, then, can help? In a FastCompany interview, Russel Shilling, a former Navy Psychologist, said to function in a situation where stress could overwhelm us, training is the answer. “If you’ve been heavily trained, you’ve already got a set of responses that you’re ready to use, so you don't have to spend a lot of that time. Your training kicks in.”

What training can kick in and stop panic? It's simple, really. We all have a calming system. It's called the parasympathetic nervous system. What we need is training that automatically kicks in and activates the parasympathetic system when panic starts.

This is what my book, Panic Free, is all about. It gives the reader step-by-step instructions that train the mind to automatically kick in when panic is about to start.

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