How Self-Modification Can Help Lessen Panic Attack Behaviors

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Self-modification programs focus on helping people manage unwanted or dysfunctional behavioral responses when dealing with their problems. For example, if you have panic attacks as a result of panic disorder (PD), a common dysfunctional behavioral response is avoidance. Unfortunately, avoiding fearful situations does nothing to help in your recovery from PD.

In order for a self-modification program to be successful, you must first take a careful inventory of your current behavior patterns to discover how you deal with anxiety and panic. For example, do you avoid going to the mall because you fear a panic attack will cause you embarrassment? Or, perhaps you keep to yourself in social situations out of fear that others may discover your “panic secret.”

Steps to Beginning a Self-Modification Program

You can begin a self-modification program by following these basic steps.

Establish Realistic Goals

Many times goals are unfulfilled because of unrealistic expectations or because a person lacks the necessary skills for their achievement. For example:

Betty has not been able to drive for the past four years due to recurrent panic attacks. She is fortunate to have a wonderful support person who provides her with transportation.

Unrealistic Goal: Drive by herself on the expressway to attend a family function in two weeks.

Realistic Goal: Drive two blocks to a local store, with a support person by her side, in one month.

Identify Target Behaviors

Look at your goals to identify what behavioral changes need to take place in order for your goals to be accomplished. Identify what obstacles may impact your ability to make these changes and form some possible solutions. For example:

Lou has been experiencing panic attacks for 6 months. He used to enjoy socializing with friends and family. But since his panic attacks began, he finds himself making excuses to avoid being in social situations that trigger his anxiety and panic responses.

In this example, the target behavior is avoidance. Lou will need to put himself into those situations that he fears. In order for this to be successful, he will need to learn and practice some coping techniques, such as:


Observing your own behavior is a necessary part of any self-modification program. To do this, it is best to keep a panic diary to record the triggers of your anxiety and panic, your behaviors and the resulting consequences.

Create a Plan for Change

This becomes your action plan. You start by making a list of your feared situations. Then put yourself into the least feared situation and use the techniques mentioned above to help you cope with your panic triggers.

As you practice your action plan, the goal is to become desensitized to the situations that produce your fear and panic responses.

Evaluate Your Action Plan

Is your action plan getting you toward your goals? If not, it is necessary to make some revisions. Evaluation of your plan should be an ongoing process. It’s not uncommon to find what will work for you through a trial and error process. And, behavioral changes often take time and practice. Don’t be discouraged if your first attempts don’t work right away or give you immediate results. Keep trying, and you’ll likely find what works for you.

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  • Corey, Gerald. (2012). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, 9th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

  • Watson, David L. & Tharp, Roland G. (2007). Self-Directed Behavior: Self-Modification for Personal Adjustment (9th ed). Belmont, CA:Wadsworth.

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