Irrational Beliefs and Panic Disorder

Irrational Belief Systems. Getty Images Credit: Arief Juwono

Panic disorder sufferers often struggle with irrational beliefs. Having a faulty belief system may escalating your experience with anxiety, panic attacks, and other panic-related symptoms. Read ahead to learn more about irrational beliefs and what you can do to overcome them. 

Where Does Your Belief System Come From?

One theory of how we perceive the world and act within it is a result of our underlying belief system. This belief system develops from early childhood, based on input from significant others in our lives and our own life experiences. However, developing a belief system is not always a rational process because our assumptions are often based on both logical and illogical input.

Illogical and Self-Defeating Beliefs

Albert Ellis, an American psychologist who is considered the grandfather of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), identified three basic irrational beliefs that lead to self-defeat:

  • “I must do well and win the approval of others or else I am no good.”
  • “Other people must treat me considerately and fairly, or else they are not good and deserve to be condemned and punished.”
  • “I must get what I want, when I want it. If I don’t get what I want, it’s terrible and intolerable.”

Let’s say you experience emotions such as sadness, depression or even anger at your inability to attend a social function because you fear having a panic attack. Your fears of having a panic attack at a social gathering may go something like this:

  • “If I have a panic attack and have to leave, people will think I’m crazy.”
  • "I can’t let anyone find out I have panic disorder. I have to keep my panic secret or people will think less of me.”
  • “If I had a panic attack while at the event, I would be so embarrassed I would never be able to face anyone again.”

Perhaps it is not the anticipation of panic that is causing your inner turmoil, but rather your underlying belief system about rejection or failure. For example:

  • “I must always have other’s approval or else I am worthless.”
  • “If someone rejects me, I am a failure.”
  • “I have to be perfect in order for other people to like me.”
  • “I must be successful.”
  • “I should never show weakness or people will think less of me.”
  • “I have to get the things I want or else I feel worthless.”

Changing Irrational Beliefs

Before we can change our irrational beliefs, we first have to discover what they are. Detecting irrational beliefs is not an easy task because they have been internalized.

In order to dispute and change irrational beliefs, we must journey through a process of detecting and debating.

Detecting – It is common for underlying belief systems to have rather rigid boundaries. Often the irrational belief is held in the form of “should,” “must” and “ought” demands that we place on ourselves or others. For example: 

Debating – Now that you’ve identified your beliefs, it’s time to debate them. Are they logical? Does it make sense that you must always be successful? Are they realistic? How do you know people will think less of you if they know about your struggles with panic disorder?

A New Way of Thinking

Changing your irrational beliefs leads to a new way of thinking about yourself, others and your environment. These changes in your thoughts will lead to changes in your behaviors and feelings. Your new way of thinking allows you reach a level of acceptance of those imperfections that were once so troubling. As you continue to challenge and debate your irrational beliefs, they lose strength, and you become free of their emotional consequences.

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  • Corey, Gerald. (2012). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy, 9th edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

By Sheryl Ankrom, MS, LCPC
Sheryl Ankrom is a clinical professional counselor and nationally certified clinical mental health counselor specializing in anxiety disorders.