Exposure treatment for panic: Do I really breathe through a straw?

Panic attacks? You may not think that putting someone into a panic is actually treatment for panic. However, the recommended treatment for panic consists of exactly that. It’s called exposure. Exposure works by purposely inducing the types of symptoms that arise when people get panicked. That’s not to say that an assessment wouldn’t include recent stressors, problem solving, or other interventions. It just means that when push comes to shove, what people are often scared of is having a panic attack in a situation where escape might be difficult.

When people panic, their sympathetic nervous system kicks into place. This increased arousal may be experienced as having sweaty palms, a racing heart, a feeling of lightheadedness, or shortness of breath. These types of symptoms can also be found in people that exercise hard.

The problem with panic is that people start to fear the symptoms of panic. They get panicked of having panic. And then the panic attack becomes more than it ever was. The original stressors that created the onset of panic almost disappear into the background.

Putting oneself in a situation -on purpose- where the above types of symptoms are experienced is a means for treating panic attacks. While it might be likely- or even ideal- to go through this with an experienced professional, the basic how-to’s for the treatment may include something like this:

  • Hyperventilating on purpose (take shallow breaths through the upper chest)
  • Breathing through a straw (pinch the straw if this is too easy)
  • Going round and round on a merry go round
  • Running up and down the stairs
  • Spinning around in circles

None of these exercises in and of themselves are harmful. It’s just that they can make you feel uncomfortable- and that’s often what people are afraid of! You could try anyone of them for 2-3 minutes.

The benefit of exposure is that your brain starts to get that you can tolerate physiological discomfort. When you tolerate physiological discomfort, the threat of uncomfortable sensation goes down. You could almost say- “This uncomfortable sensation is arising within me, and I can tolerate it. For the moment- I can be okay.” You may need to practice this multiple times before you start to get used to it- but you will need to weigh the costs/ benefits to letting your panic control your life.

Exposure is one approach to treating panic. Because once you get your brain back, you can use it to help you start problem solving other aspects of panic.