Using DBT Skills to Cope with Anxiety and Panic Attacks

a rock with the words 'keep calm' painted on it sits on a pile of brown leaves

Anxiety and panic attacks have been on the rise in the past few years. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that anxiety affects 6.8 million Americans today. The same report also found that around 6 million Americans have experienced panic attacks in the past year.

However, research collected by the ADAA found that the majority of people who have anxiety and/or panic attacks do not get the help they need. Only 43% of people with anxiety are getting help, even though a myriad of treatment options exist to help folks cope.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) may be the treatment option that folks with anxiety and panic attacks have been searching for. DBT is typically used to address issues like personality disorders, but it can also help with emotional regulation and distress tolerance.


Understanding Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Anxiety and panic attacks are typically couched together as different symptoms of the same issues. However, there are some distinct differences that need to be understood before folks can start to explore DBT for themselves.

Anxiety is typically triggered by something that is perceived to be stressful or challenging. A bout of anxiety can be defined as “mild”, “moderate”, or “severe” and may build gradually over time.

Panic attacks, however, often happen out of the blue. They immediately disrupt any day-to-day activities and force the body into a state of fight-or-flight. They leave folks feeling exhausted and may trigger fears that future attacks will occur without any real warning.

It’s impossible to say why, exactly, a person develops anxiety or panic attacks. However, long-term psychological stress exacerbates symptoms of anxiety and may prompt panic attacks. Common signs of long-term stress include:

  •  Increased irritability;
  •  Difficulty relaxing;
  •  Feeling overwhelmed and/or out of control;
  •  Low self-esteem;
  •  Frequent illnesses;
  •  Difficulty sleeping.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, as symptoms of poor stress management express themselves differently in everyone. Seeing a trained therapist is a great way to better understand the symptoms of stress, anxiety, and panic attacks.


Finding Help

Folks who live with anxiety and/or panic attacks should seek professional help. Seeking professional help for mental health can help people build a healthcare plan that suits their needs and improve their overall quality of life. After you have identified the ways that stress is negatively impacting your life, you can then seek out a mental health evaluation. Professionals in this field know how to craft treatment plans that are tailored to the individual needs of their patients and can help folks achieve realistic mental-health goals.

Fortunately finding a DBT provider isn’t too difficult. Folks can start with a simple Google search (“DBT therapist near me . . .”) or they can use resources like:

  •  Therapy Den;
  •  DBT Provider;
  •  Latinx Therapy;
  •  Black Female Therapists.

These providers may work with common DBT techniques — like mindfulness and distress tolerance — or they may opt to pursue other treatment paths. The key is to find an approach that works for each individual.


Mindfulness Techniques

DBT combines the tenets of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with Zen Buddhism. It’s a skill-based approach that takes time and requires but, ultimately, can help folks restructure the way they think about the world.

Many people’s first foray into DBT comes in the form of mindfulness. Mindfulness helps people focus on the current moment to alleviate distressing thoughts and emotions. It’s a research-based strategy that gets people “out of [their] head” to reduce stress and boost day-to-day happiness.

There are plenty of free mindfulness exercises on the web today that can guide folks through the practice. These mindfulness exercises help people with visualization, body scanning, and mindful movement practices. In time, everyone can find a mindfulness technique that works for them.


Emotional Regulation

Folks who live with anxiety and/or panic attacks may struggle to regulate their emotions. While some people may need medication to ease the symptoms of their condition, DBT can help with emotional regulation, too.

DBT sees emotions as waves: they are self-perpetuating and cyclical. As such, it’s really important to disrupt the cycle and validate the emotions that a person is feeling. Validation can help folks embrace radical acceptance and ground themselves during a moment of high emotions.

Self-validation can help people see their emotions in a new light, too. Rather than feeling shame in response to anger, DBT encourages participants to notice feelings and sensations and accept the present moment. This helps people see that they have a choice when responding to emotions and can break the cycle of shame, anger, or anxiety-inducing guilt.


Distress Tolerance

Life is innately stressful. However, some people may find themselves falling into a spiral of anxiety and/or panic attacks when faced with certain stressors. DBT can help folks who struggle with stress by improving their resilience and giving them the tools to self-soothe.

Self-soothing is a physical form of self-care. When self-soothing, folks use their five senses to regulate their emotions and comfort themselves. For example, someone who feels their anxiety growing can self-soothe by listening to tapes of the sea or lighting an incense stick in their home.

By paying attention to the calming stimulus, folks can step back from their emotions and learn to enjoy the present moment. This kind of practice can be combined with mindfulness, too, as mindful practices can reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety and help improve emotional control.


DBT can help folks cope with anxiety and panic attacks by addressing the root cause of stress in their lives. DBT techniques — like emotional regulation — can help people better understand their thoughts and emotions, too. This is particularly helpful for those who feel as though they lack control or are often overwhelmed by their emotions, as DBT increases self-efficacy and gives people the tools they need to attain self-mastery.


About the Author

Miles Oliver is an independent writer with a background in business and a passion for tech, psychology, news, and simply helping people live happy and fulfilled lives. He has lived and traveled all over the United States and continues to expand his awareness and experiences. When he is not writing, he is most likely mountain biking or kicking back with a cup of tea.

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