top of page
  • Maria Sullivan

Navigating the Storm: A DBT-Inspired Guide to Managing Panic Attacks

Welcome to Meaningful Mental Health, a space where I dive into the topics that resonate most with you. Our recent poll on the website revealed an overwhelming interest in a subject that touches many lives — panic attacks.

In this post, I'll unravel the complexities of panic attacks, explore their physical nature, and provide you with practical strategies, including the empowering skills of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which you may add to your coping skills toolkit. I hope some- if not all- of the following content resonates with you and/or enhances how you support others who may be struggling with panic attacks. Allow this reading experience to empower you to want to continue learning, understanding, and exploring yourself - so you can find the relief you need and effectively manage your mental health.

A person behind invisible glass with their hands pressed against the glass facing towards you and you can only really see their hands but their face and body are blurred entirely with just dark spots to represent where the head and body are

What Are Panic Attacks, Really?

Panic attacks are intense episodes of overwhelming fear or anxiety that can strike suddenly and without warning. They are characterized by a rapid onset of physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, and feelings of impending doom or loss of control. Despite often being mistaken for heart attacks or other medical emergencies, panic attacks are primarily psychological in nature, stemming from an exaggerated response to stress or perceived threats.

Caught In A Whirlwind

Panic attacks strike like a sudden storm, leaving individuals caught in a whirlwind of emotions and physical sensations. Understanding the nature of this experience is the first step in navigating its complexities. Picture this: a surge of intense fear or discomfort accompanied by a range of physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, and a feeling of impending doom. It's a daunting combination that can make you feel like you've lost control.

To confront this whirlwind, let's first acknowledge its presence. By understanding the physical aspects of panic attacks, we gain insight into the body's response to stress and anxiety. Anxiety, at its core, is a physical response deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. Imagine our ancestors navigating the challenges of the wild – the fight or flight response was crucial for survival. In the modern context, however, our bodies often interpret non-threatening situations as potential dangers, triggering the same primal response. Recognizing this evolutionary quirk helps us identify the disconnection between perceived threat and actual danger. It's like deciphering the language of panic, allowing us to respond with intention rather than succumbing to the chaos. This realization empowers us to navigate the storm by reprogramming our response to stressors, fostering a sense of control amid the tempest of emotions.

Now that we've explored the storm's anatomy, let's equip ourselves with tools to navigate it. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), founded by Dr. Marsha Linehan, provides a framework that goes beyond its initial focus on personality disorders. It has proven to be a valuable resource for those grappling with anxiety and managing panic attacks.

A spiral staircase, winding down, looking down towards bottom of staircase

Mindfulness Practices for

Our Panic Moments

When the waves of anxiety hit, embracing a mindful approach can make all the difference. Mindfulness, a key component of DBT, gives us the power to observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment. It's like having a secret weapon against panic attacks.

- Observing the Breath: Take a moment to redirect your focus to your breath. Notice its natural rhythm; it's a simple yet powerful technique that promotes a sense of calmness, helping to steer away from the storm of panic.

- Mindful Awareness: Let's cultivate awareness of the present moment. Allow thoughts and sensations to come and go without attachment. This mindful awareness is a valuable tool for disrupting the cycle of panic.

- Grounding Techniques: Engage your senses with grounding exercises, like feeling the texture of an object. It's a way to anchor yourself in the present moment, easing the intensity of panic.

Distress Tolerance Strategies for When Panic Strikes

Okay, so when those overwhelming emotions hit, distress tolerance becomes our superpower. Developing these skills is vital for finding solace in the midst of emotional turbulence.

- Self-Soothing Techniques: Let's use sensory experiences to create a tangible anchor during moments of panic. Whether it's holding a comforting object or focusing on a soothing scent, it's like giving yourself a gentle hug.

- Breathing Exercises: We all need a moment to breathe. Practice intentional breathing—inhale deeply, hold, and exhale slowly. It's a valuable tool for calming the nervous system and releasing tension.

- TIPP Skill for Immediate Distress Tolerance:

- Temperature: Immerse your face in cold water or hold a cold pack to your eyes for 30 seconds. This activates the mammalian diving reflex, slowing the heart rate and promoting a sense of calmness. Additionally, you can experiment with variations of this technique, such as stepping into an air-conditioned room, placing your face in front of a fan, or stepping outside if the weather is cool. The use of cold in any form can trigger the body's natural calming response and provide relief during intense moments of distress.

- Intense Exercise: Engage in brief, intense physical activity. Jumping jacks, running in place—whatever suits the situation—can redirect our focus from emotional distress.

- Paced Breathing: Let's practice slow, rhythmic breathing, focusing on exhaling longer than inhaling. This helps regulate the autonomic nervous system, promoting a state of relaxation.

- Paired Muscle Relaxation: Tense and then relax different muscle groups. It's like giving our bodies a reset, releasing physical tension, and creating a sense of calmness.

Emotion Regulation Techniques for Your Journey

Now, mastering emotion regulation is like unlocking a new level of resilience and grace. It's about viewing and responding to our emotions with compassion. Let's dive into some practical tools for breaking free from those negative cycles.

- Self-Validation: We're all human, and our emotions are valid. Acknowledge and validate your feelings; view them through a compassionate lens. This shift empowers us to make conscious choices and break free from shame or anxiety-inducing guilt.

- Identifying Triggers: We're detectives in our own lives. Recognize patterns and triggers that lead to panic attacks. By understanding these cues, we can proactively implement strategies to manage and mitigate heightened emotions.


As we navigate the peaks and valleys of anxiety, DBT stands as a steadfast companion, providing a roadmap for effective coping with panic attacks. By incorporating mindfulness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation into your arsenal, not only can you weather the storm, but emerge stronger, more resilient, and better equipped to face your own personal mental health journey.

If you're wondering whether therapy may benefit you, feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see how I might be able to help you.

Stay tuned for more insightful blog posts found on my site & subscribe to the email list to unlock a wealth of valuable resources and exclusive updates from Meaningful Mental Health.

You may also want to check out my blog post on Finding Your Ideal Therapist for guidance on this journey. Remember, your mental health matters, and seeking support is a powerful step toward healing.

Maria Sullivan


bottom of page