Tips for Handling Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

For many of us, panic attacks can strike at the most inopportune times. Fortunately, there are coping mechanisms you can employ to keep your anxiety at bay. In this episode of the Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen dive into the topic of anxiety to give you tips for dealing with that overwhelming feeling of stress that can occur during a panic attack.


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Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to The Brain Warrior's Way podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Today, we're going to talk about anxiety and I know more about this than I want to know. I grew up in a family of seven children. So in four years, my mother had four children.

Tana Amen: And, five of them ...

Dr. Daniel Amen: Are girls.

Tana Amen: So I love to say that Daniel came housebroken and fully trained. I'm grateful to his sisters so, yes, it's amazing.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I'm not sure why but I grew up with a lot of anxiety, and I don't think it's necessarily all the drama in my house.

Tana Amen: Although there would be a lot of chaos with five girls.

Dr. Daniel Amen: There is a lot of chaos. I'm third of seven children and I didn't get much attention because-

Tana Amen: Seven kids is hard.

Dr. Daniel Amen: The people who are special in a family: so the oldest child and then the oldest girl and oldest boy, and then the youngest. I had an older sister and an older brother so that just meant I was completely non-special and my younger sister, the one who's just younger than I am, [Jeanie 00:01:23], is 13 months younger than I am, which means when I was four months old, my mom got pregnant. If you just think about that sort of chaos ... I remember as a child, terribly conflict-avoidant. I'd bite my fingernails until they bled.

Tana Amen: Oh, really? Wow.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Had trouble speaking up in class because I didn't want people to think I was stupid. Plus when I went to a school, it wasn't a classroom of 20 children. I had 48 kids in my class. They are six rows, eight people deep. And we grew up seriously Catholic, so my mom was very serious about the whole thing. And there was always this sort of idea of hell and damnation, and doing something wrong, and then confession and then bad thoughts and judgment. So I grew up actually feeling really anxious and I think it's no wonder that when I decided to be a psychiatrist. I didn't really do it for me thinking, "Oh, this would really help me." I did it because someone I cared about tried to kill herself and then I'm like, "Wow."

And I just loved it but I gravitated toward hypnosis, and doing hypnosis for my patients. I actually took a whole month elective in hypnosis at UC Irvine. I found that when I would hypnotize people, I would get super relaxed, that I just loved how I felt when I was putting people in a hypnotic trance because I would go along with them. And then I learned biofeedback, and biofeedback is where you use instruments to teach people to warm their hands, relax their muscles, decrease sweat gland activity, breathe diaphragmatically. I was just amazed at how that helped me.

I used to be scared to death in front of audiences, which is funny now because you know-

Tana Amen: Right. I'm like, "What?"

Dr. Daniel Amen: I was in front of 26,000 people-

Tana Amen: You love speaking.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Last year and I was at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, and I didn't have one flutter of anxiety. But, before because I worried about people judging me and ... I remember if I used to hold my notes, they would shake in my hand because I would have that motor overflow of anxiety.

Tana Amen: Interesting.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And I love the fact that I've been able to conquer this. But it would come out in other ways, too, because when you're anxious, you become masterful at predicting the worst possible thing. Now, just thinking about it, I was one of those kids who wet his bed when he was little. So that means every single morning-

Tana Amen: And that would create more anxiety.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Until I was about 10 years old, I woke up in a panic because it's like, "Did I? Didn't I? What's the fallout?"

Tana Amen: And I've heard-

Dr. Daniel Amen: And my mom was never bad about it.

Tana Amen: I've heard kids say that that's like traumatizing.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I mean, I have one person ... I was actually testifying in a death penalty case. Lewis killed four people in 11 days on a meth run. His brain was just awful, and he was a bed wetter. As opposed to my mom who handled it in a-

Tana Amen: Really well.

Dr. Daniel Amen: In a rational way, except one time which I'll tell you about, what they did with Lewis is they took him and his wet sheets, and tied him to a tree outside in the neighborhood-

Tana Amen: Oh, my god. That's terrible.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So everybody can see.

Tana Amen: Oh, that's terrible.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And so they shamed him. My mom took me to a urologist and said, "What do you do?" Now we have treatment for that. I treat many bed wetters.

Tana Amen: Right. There's a medication that helps it.

Dr. Daniel Amen: There's a nasal spray called DDAVP or imipramine. Both of them can take care of it because you just have [crosstalk 00:05:37] bladder.

Tana Amen: And there's a lot of reasons that can happen in case anyone's listening. Just go get it checked. Don't shame your child.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Please don't do that.

Tana Amen: Yes, because it's not that hard to treat.

Dr. Daniel Amen: That obviously could have been the seeds to some of my anxiety, but she took me to a urologist who told her to make me drink lots of water, and then prevent me from going to the bathroom so that I would expand my bladder.

Tana Amen: Oh my gosh.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Now I'm like always freaked out, I can't find the bathroom.

Tana Amen: So they created another anxiety disorder.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So they completely created an anxiety disorder about it, and so ... But when you have an anxiety disorder you actually begin to start having anticipatory anxiety. Or you begin to predict the worst possible thing that could happen. And I remember when I learned about cognitive therapy, or what we call ANT therapy, that I used to be masterful at predicting the worst. So if I almost got into an accident, rather than saying, "Oh, thank god I didn't get into an accident." My brain would play the whole thing out as if I got into a bad accident.

Tana Amen: So-

Dr. Daniel Amen: So, wait for a second. So I would see somebody hitting my car, the car exploding, the ambulance driver having ADD and getting lost on the way, and then I'd be burned over 90% of my body, I'd go to the hospital, and the nurse wouldn't even be cute as she had to rip off the bandages in the burn unit. And now, when I realize that tendency, I just go stop it.

Tana Amen: So I have to jump in here, because this is hilarious. This part I'm going to tell you is not hilarious. We're helping someone in our family who's going through a really serious crisis, and she's going through a program. And she does that. And it would make me crazy, I'm like, "Why are we doing these future ... You're going so far into the future with things that have not happened. Stop it." I was trying to coach her into this. Her new program, they said, "Stop future trippin'." I love that term. You were future trippin'.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Oh, always. And then if you do anxiety-provoking work, like we do here at Amen Clinics, I mean we do imaging, most psychiatrists don't do that. But I really, I had to learn to deal with my anxieties so that I can fight for the right to do the mission that we do here at Amen Clinics, which is look at people's brain. Which now, it's just obvious that of course you should look. But at the time we were getting attacked. And if you have trouble dealing with conflict, then it's really hard to be a pioneer. So let's talk about how do you deal with anxiety? And actually, you're not immune to it.

Tana Amen: Oh no.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I remember when you were nine years old, that you actually had separation anxiety from your mom.

Tana Amen: Oh no, I've been through many, many periods in my life where I was wracked with anxiety, so I completely get this. I don't think I'm as fearful of it as the depression, because it didn't make me want to die. I mean, let's face it, I wanted to die with the depression. The anxiety, it can be paralyzing, but I think for me, personally, not to the same level that the depression did. But I'm, you're the one who explained anxious ADD to me, so over-anxious, over-focused ADD. So no, I'm definitely not immune to it. It's what keeps me doing the right things. It's what keeps me from being late, even though I have ADD. Or it keeps me from not turning things in, or keeps me ... I got straight A's in school. It's that anxiety that keeps me on track.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So you need some anxiety.

Tana Amen: I've got a little bit more.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So let's not get rid of anxiety altogether.

Tana Amen: I've a little bit more than normal.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So the things I've done that have really helped me, hypnosis. I just love it.

Tana Amen: Me too, so I'm a huge fan.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And on BrainFitLife, so if you want to listen to six hypnosis audios that I've done-

Tana Amen: So you are the person who got me into hypnosis. Daniel created some hypnosis audios just for me, for performance, because I used to have some performance anxiety in martial arts, for my belt tests. And I just rocked them. I became a huge fan, because I found them to be so relaxing, and I started using it in other areas of my life. So our hypnosis audios, I'm a huge fan.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So if you go to, you can sign up and learn more about that. We have hypnosis audios for anxiety, for sleep, for weight, for pain-

Tana Amen: Performance too, right?

Dr. Daniel Amen: And performance. There's also brain-enhancing music, some of the music you listen to will help you feel less anxious, more relaxed. Some music you listen to will make you feel more anxious. So the quality of the music you listen to really does matter. There are games on BrainFitLife. My favorite one for anxiety is called "My Calm Beat."

Tana Amen: That's really good.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Which is a breathing pacer, because when people get anxious, they tend to breathe more with the upper part of their chest, and they tend to breathe faster, which will trigger your brain, "Something's wrong. Be anxious." And so we teach you to breathe diaphragmatically, more with your belly.

Tana Amen: That triggers an adrenaline response as opposed to-

Dr. Daniel Amen: And if you set the pacer to about 5.5 breaths per minute, it's a relaxation pattern.

Tana Amen: It's a great program.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's a really great program. And then of course, learning to kill the ANTs, the fortune-telling ANTs that steal your happiness. So whenever you're feeling anxious, write down whatever thought you have. When you get anxious, try not to leave the situation, because if you leave, unless of course it's dangerous. But if it's dangerous, just leave. But if it's not dangerous, you're starting to have a panic attack in the grocery store, don't just leave-

Tana Amen: Talk your way through it.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Try to stay, breathe diaphragmatically, think of warming images. Because we found that when we teach people to warm their hands, it's an immediate relaxation response. Sometimes just go to a sink and put on, not hot water, but warm water, and that can have an immediate relaxation response.

Tana Amen: So I want to jump in here for a second, because this is a great example for acute anxiety. Like to teach people what anxiety does and how people can actually train yourself to not have the anxiety reaction, the adrenaline response. So I was attacked when I was 15, walking to high school, and what happens when people get attacked, is they have this rush of this adrenaline response, the fight-or-flight reaction, right? Well, a lot of people shut down when that happens. Some people go crazy. I go crazy. So they go crazy and they just fight, and they don't even know what they're doing, but they're just going crazy fighting. But one of those two reactions usually happens.

That adrenaline reaction is what's happening in your body with a panic attack. So when you practice martial arts, or soldiers, or cops, these people they all learn how to manage this adrenaline response. And there's a couple of things that happen instantly. One of the things they taught us, is look, "If you ever get attacked, that adrenaline response is going to kick in. It's why you don't fight immediately, or you don't respond appropriately. Because when it kicks in, a couple things happen. You get tunnel vision, instantly. You can't speak in sentences, like mono-syllabic. Like one sound words come out of your mouth, and you start to hyperventilate." Like you said, your breathing goes really fast. So what they started doing was training police office and soldiers and martial artists who were trying ... Like for self-defense. What they trained you to do, they put you in stressful environments, and then what they instantly teach you to do, break that tunnel vision. You want to look side to side, take three big, deep breaths like you talked about.

So you've got to break the cycle that's happening. Break the tunnel vision. Break that fast breathing, and then instantly try to ground yourself really quickly and then start to talk. Then, if you can do that, you'll start to train that adrenaline response not to just take off, like to control you. You control the adrenaline response.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And I like what you said, get control of your breathing, so take a big breath, five seconds in, hold it for two seconds, blow it out but take five seconds to blow it out. Hold it out for two seconds.

Tana Amen: And belly breathe.

Dr. Daniel Amen: And repeat that, just three or four or five times, and it can break a panic attack. So many things you can do. You don't have to live with anxiety that ultimately steals your happiness and your health. You're listening to the Brain Warrior's Way. Stay with us.