Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “When Panic Attacks” by David Burns

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David Burns has been writing about depression, anxiety and one of the best-known treatments for it, cognitive therapy, for a long time. In my opinion, this is his best work. When Panic Attacks: A New Drug-free Therapy to Beat Chronic Shyness, Anxiety and Phobia provides surprising methods for combating these difficult mental health challenges, and his conversational–even humorous–tone will inspire you to try them (no matter how wacky they may seem).

Read this book to learn a variety of interesting techniques for coaching yourself through difficult moments.

Key Takeaways

There are many cognitive exercises you can use to self-calm during an acute episode of anxiety, panic or depression. Here are just a few:

  • The “what-if technique”: Write down the negative thought and ask questions to challenge them. Keep asking questions until you get to the core fear.
  • The experimental technique: Test negative thoughts like a scientist tests a theory, asking for and weighing the evidence.
  • The reattribution technique: Rather than talking yourself out of your negative thought or fear, simply take a more well-rounded perspective and reduce exaggeration. Look for the shades of grey.
  • The “process versus outcome” technique: When worried about your performance, think about both the effort you put in and the outcome. You can control your preparation and hard work, but external factors may affect the outcome. Focus on the effort you put in, like attending classes and preparing well, and accept the outcome.
  • The should-catching technique: Catch any “shoulds” that you find in your negative thought or fear. Realieze that “words that cause emotional distress often fall outside the categories of moral, legal, or laws-of-the-universe shoulds. For example, feeling shy is not immoral, illegal, or a law of the universe.”
  • The “be specific” technique: Don’t let overgeneralizations fool you. Be specific about your self-critiques so they will hold less weight. Performance anxiety can come from fear of failure and being labeled a failure as a person.
  • The “supervisor from hell” technique: Play the part of a grumpy supervisor (your inner critic) who is telling you the things that your brain is telling you in your negative moment. Then, gently talk to the supervisor, questioning them until you see how illogical your inner critic is.
  • The self-monitoring technique: Count your negative thoughts throughout the day. Continuously monitoring negative thoughts can lead to a significant decrease in them and a noticeable improvement in your mood. You can use a score counter, like the ones golfers use, to keep track of your negative thoughts.
  • The worry breaks technique: Schedule time to purposely allow negative thoughts and feelings to surface and not fight against them. During these scheduled times, you allow yourself to experience the negative thoughts fully. The rest of the day, you can focus on living positively and productively.
  • The paradoxical magnification technique: Instead of refuting your negative thoughts, buy in to them and exaggerate them until they become humorous and absurd. “For example, if you feel inferior, you could tell yourself, ‘Yes, it’s true. In fact, I’m probably the most inferior person in California at this time, and maybe in the entire United States.'”
  • The humor technique: Substitute a funny, absurd fantasy in place of the one that’s making you anxious.
  • The acceptance technique: Instead of defending against the negative thought, find some truth in it. Agree with it, and befriend the critic in your mind.
  • The cost-benefit analysis technique: Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of having a negative thought that is bothering you.
  • The “devil’s advocate” technique: To overcome tempting negative thoughts, make a list and give it to a friend or family member. Ask them to act as the devil and tempt you with the thoughts on the list. The other person should use seductive language and address you with “you.” Your goal is to resist the temptation and defeat the devil. It can be challenging to do this, especially if your list is honest. If you get stuck, reverse roles so your friend can demonstrate a more effective response.

Other techniques for effectively overcoming an acute anxiety or depression episode are behavioral rather than cognitive. Some of these are:

  • Shame-attacking exercises: In order to overcome a fear of embarrassment, intentionally do something foolish in public. “You’ll usually discover that most people don’t look down on you and the world doesn’t really come to an end. In fact, most of the time, everyone ends up having a lot of fun.”
  • Exercise: Bursts of intense exercise, like jumping jacks, can stop a panic attack and get you out of a negative spiral.
  • Exposure therapy: Instead of avoiding your fears, engage in them! This is one of the best ways to overcome the fear. Keep track of your progress in writing.

About the Author

David D. Burns is an American psychiatrist, author, and pioneer in the development of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). He received his medical degree from the Stanford University School of Medicine and is best known for his bestselling self-help book, “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,” which has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and is widely regarded as a classic in the field of CBT. He has also written several other books on CBT and psychotherapy, and is a frequent speaker and trainer at professional conferences and workshops. Burns has received numerous awards for his contributions to the field of mental health, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists.


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