Distorted Thinking and Panic Disorder

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People with panic disorder often experience negative thoughts with self-defeating beliefs. This is especially the case during a panic attack when your inner voice may amplify your fears and anxiety. For example, when panic takes hold, you may believe that you really are going to stop breathing or that you truly are going crazy.

Listed below are some irrational thoughts that are common among people with anxiety disorders. In order to change your thinking, you must first become aware of these thought patterns that are an underlying part of your panic.


When you're forecasting, you're predicting a future event that hasn't happened. People with panic disorder typical forecast that the worst will happen. For example, if you’re afraid of flying, while on a plane you might think to yourself, “This turbulence feels scary, I know something is wrong with the plane.” Or if you have agoraphobia and fear leaving your home, you might think, “If I leave, I just know I'll have a panic attack.”

The problem with forecasting is that it only feeds your anxiety, causing you to feel more afraid. As feelings of panic grow, your thought pattern only spirals further out of control. Your outlook may escalate to beliefs such as, “I just know this plane is going to crash” or “If I have a panic attack in public, I'll go crazy and have to be committed.”


Anxiety- and panic-prone people tend to use words "should", "ought," or "must" when describing themselves and their situation. You hold beliefs such as, “I should be calm on planes,” “I ought to be comfortable in public,” or “I must be a failure.” Such harsh self-judgments are not helpful in reducing your anxiety.

Instead, you become overwhelmed with self-defeating thoughts. You may begin to blame yourself for having panic disorder, believing that it's some sort of flaw on your part. You may also use name-calling, such as telling yourself that you're “pathetic” or “weak.” This can even lead to overgeneralizations in which you think that you “will never feel okay in public” or you “will always feel uneasy.” All of these destructive thoughts add to feelings of helplessness, making panic disorder even more overwhelming.


Nervousness is often magnified when we believe that we're being judged by others. Those with panic disorder often feel that others disapprove of them, further fueling feelings of guilt and worry. Even if there's no proof that others are critically evaluating you, you still believe that others have an aversion to you. You may be a people-pleaser, wanting to be liked and seen as perfect by others. You may also feel inferior to others, thinking that you just don’t measure up.

When you mind-read, you have thoughts like, “I can tell by the flight attendant’s face that there's a serious problem with the plane.” Or, while out in public you think, “That person can tell I’m nervous. He thinks I’m neurotic." As you can see, these inner statements only make your apprehension grow.

How to Change Your Thinking

These destructive thought processes are contributing to your experience with panic disorder. Do you recognize your thought patterns in any of these belief systems? In order to change the way you think, you must first recognize your typical thoughts. To begin to change, keep a notebook and pen with you and throughout the day, try to jot down every harmful thought you notice. At the end of the day, you may be surprised by how many times you had negative thoughts similar to the ones listed here.

Now that you have them down on paper, spend some time writing down a more constructive statement. For example, let’s say you wrote down “I should be less of a worrier and get a grip.” Try replacing that negative thought with a statement like, “Some days are better than others, but I know I'm doing my best to overcome anxiety and panic.” While out in public you might think, “I know she just looked at me and thinks I am pitiful.” Replace that with, “She just glanced at me because I entered the store. I'm sure she was thinking about her own life.” The more you become aware of your thought process, the easier it will become to change it. Over time, your views about yourself and the world around you will transform into a more optimistic picture.

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Article Sources

  • Bourne, E. J. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 4th ed, 2005.
  • Burns, D. D. When Panic Attacks, 2006.
  • Ellis, A. The Myth of Self-esteem: How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Can Change Your Life Forever, 2006.