The No. 1 Thing to Do When You're Having a Panic Attack

03/02/2015 11:42 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015

I went through a very stressful phase in my early 20s when I suffered from panic attacks. At the time, I thought I was the only one who had this problem. Working with so many actors over the years, I've now come to discover that it's a pretty common phenomenon for young adults navigating their worlds of new independence, figuring out who they are, and what it is they want to do with their lives.

So don't panic! It's normal.

But at a deeper level, panic attacks can actually show us who we are. And how much we aren't allowing ourselves to simply be.

The prototype: Control freaks who aren't gentle with themselves and who put their own needs and health on a back burner in order to achieve externally. In their minds, success or perfection equals love.

Sadly, that equation never adds up. The energy being given to perfection -- having it all together, not making mistakes, not allowing yourself to be human -- actually becomes repressed energy that ends up finding its way out.

It's almost like our feeling self is saying, "You continue to choose to ignore me so I'm going to now let it all out so you'll have to deal with what I'm feeling."

Eek. Not fun in life, not manageable on stage, and not easy to deal with in the audition room.

It's counterintuitive, but progressive approaches that deal with panic and stress disorders are about actually allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed with the feelings we most want to keep at bay. That's what creates the panic in the first place.

You don't want to feel things you can't control, manage, or intellectualize your way through. The irony is that feelings can't be intellectualized anyway. That's the challenge about acting right there: We try to "analyze" something that instead wants to be experienced and felt.

So the perceived fear of actually feeling our feelings is what makes us guard against them, only increasing them to the point that they overwhelm us with panic.

Life lesson: We get through life not by thinking our way through it, but by feeling our way instead.

Like most things in life, the way to deal with them is two-fold. Acknowledge what you don't want to feel. Breathe.

Like anything, it's not about denying something. It's about changing your relationship to it. Feeling isn't meant to be controlled; it's supposed to be felt, shared, experienced.

Cut yourself some slack. Acknowledge how well you're actually doing. Don't get caught up in the "shoulds." Change your self-dialogue to something more supportive and loving. Don't beat yourself up when you get nervous or anxious or feel like you should be able to go into audition rooms and not get nervous.

As the founder of Gestalt Therapy Fritz Perls said, "Fear is excitement without breath."

So change the paradigm. It's OK to be excited. It's OK to not have all the answers to your life's questions. It's OK to just coast for a bit and see what unfolds. It's OK to feel like you need to take a breather. It's OK to fail, fall apart, release.

It's called being human. Let's all just try to be a little more that every day.

*First published on Backstage