Check out our latest tips for looking after your mental health.

Riding the Waves of Anxiety with 'Panic Surfing'

Embracing the Swell: Conquering Physical Anxiety with ‘Panic Surfing’

Written by Clinical Psychologist, Katie Dobinson 

Life is full of ups and downs, just like waves in the ocean. However, sometimes intense physical anxiety can manifest as a panic attack, which can feel like being caught in a tumultuous ocean, tossed about by unseen forces beyond our control. While these feelings can be frightening and overwhelming panic surfing is a simple but very effective skill to manage panic attacks. 

The experience of ‘panic’ can sit on a spectrum of varying levels of intensity and frequency. First, let’s explore the difference between feeling panicked, experiencing a panic attack, and the mental health condition of Panic Disorder. 

What is panic? 

We might describe ‘feeling panicked’ when faced with a challenging, stressful situation, or when we’re juggling many different demands all at once. This sense of ‘panic’ might involve racing, anxious thoughts, a general feeling of unease or fear, and some physical symptoms of anxiety. The body’s fight-or-flight system kicks into gear when we are anxious, causing the stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to be released. This can lead to sensations such as a racing heartbeat, sweatiness, tightness in one’s chest, and muscle tension, to name a few. Feeling ‘panicked’ tends to be a brief feeling that subsides once the stressful situation has ended. 

What are panic attacks? 

A panic attack can be defined as a sudden, intense feeling of fear or discomfort, co-occurring with unpleasant physical symptoms.  Panic attack symptoms come on quickly, and tend to reach their peak within 10 minutes. Unpleasant physical symptoms commonly experienced during a panic attack include several of the following: 

  • Feeling like you can’t breathe 
  • Having heart palpitations 
  • Sweating 
  • Trembling or shaking 
  • Chest pain or tension 
  • Nausea 
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded 
  • Feeling numb or tingly 

NB: Importantly, a panic attack involves these symptoms occurring without an underlying medical condition, or the effects of a substance, causing them. A quick note to check-in with your doctor if you’re experiencing these symptoms for a health check, to rule out potential physical difficulties. 

The sudden onset of these unpleasant physical symptoms can lead a person to feel as though something terrible is about to happen. Some people experience panic attacks in relation to a specific feared situation (e.g., public speaking, heights, spiders) while for others, panic attacks can arise ‘out of the blue’.  

It’s not just the unpleasant physical symptoms that define the panic attack experience, but it’s the feeling of fear and worry that comes along with these sensations. Many people who experience panic attacks report worrying that they’re having a heart attack, or fear that they’re going ‘crazy’. In fact, it is our misinterpretation of these physical sensations as being dangerous that can often keep the cycle of panic in progress.  

What is Panic Disorder? 

Panic Disorder can develop when a person suffers from frequent, unexpected panic attacks, and as a result in-between panic attacks they start to worry intensely about when their next attack will happen, and how they can prevent it. It is the fear of having more panic attacks that defines Panic Disorder, rather than the experience of a panic attack itself.


Coping with panic attacks through ‘Panic Surfing’ 

To cope with this scary experience of panic, many people will try to avoid the situations that could trigger a panic attack. Depending on the triggers, this could mean avoiding public transport, crowded environments, social gatherings, public speaking, or otherwise. Whilst this makes sense in the short-term as a way to avoid the terrifying experience of a panic attack, it doesn’t help to solve the problem in the long-run. Avoidance reinforces one’s fears that “I can’t cope with a panic attack”, further isolates the person, and feeds the vicious cycle of panic.  

This is where panic surfing comes in. 

When you watch a surfer in the ocean approaching a big set, or large wave, they embrace the swell and move with the ocean’s tide, not against it. They start paddling with the wave, building up speed, and as it reaches its peak, the surfer will stand on their board and allow the wave’s movement to carry them forward. It’s by embracing, not resisting, that they master the wave and learn confidence in navigating the big swell.   

The same principle can be applied to managing a panic attack, with an evidence-based skill known as ‘panic surfing’. However, rather than being armed with surfboard, ‘panic surfers’ are armed with resilience and determination. Panic surfing is all about bravely embracing one’s fear of the unpleasant panic sensations, allowing the sensations to rise to a peak, then observing as the sensations fall, much like a wave rises and falls in the ocean.  

Panic surfing is a simple but very effective skill for overcoming panic attacks. 

Try these simple steps to get started on your surfing journey: 

  • Notice that you’re feeling anxiety and acknowledge, rather than suppress, this feeling: “I am feeling anxious and noticing my heart-beat has increased, and my palms are sweaty.” 
  • Remember that whilst unpleasant, the symptoms will not harm you: “These are the symptoms of a panic attack, and whilst it feels really awful, these sensations will not hurt or harm me.” 
  • Slow down your breathing: When anxious, we often breathe too quickly, which unfortunately only increases feelings of tension and worry. Take time each day to slow your breathing down. Try breathing in for 3 seconds, out for 3 seconds, and practicing this for several minutes each day. 
  • Ride the wave: Allow the symptoms to rise and fall like a ‘wave’ and challenge your interpretation of them: Rather than misinterpreting your racing heart as evidence of a medical emergency, try to notice these symptoms as anxiety, remind yourself that they aren’t harmful, and allow the feelings to come and go. This will become easier with practice. 


Embrace it, don’t resist it

Just like learning to surf, it takes practice to master the big waves, or strong panic symptoms. However, decades of research indicate that embracing, rather than resisting, panic symptoms is key in learning to manage and overcome panic attacks. By allowing yourself to experience, rather than resist these symptoms, you can also come to learn through lived experience that the symptoms themselves are not dangerous, and that you’re more resilient than you may have realised.  

Panic attacks can be frightening, but are very common and very treatable. There is support available to you, and you don’t have to learn to ride the panic wave alone. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is an effective form of psychological treatment for panic attacks. Consider speaking with a psychologist for individual support. If you’re unsure where to start, have a discussion with your GP about a referral to a mental health clinician or other treatment options. 

You could also check out the THIS WAY UP Panic Program, an evidence-based treatment for Panic Disorder where you’ll learn effective skills to help manage symptoms of panic.


Not Sure which program is for you?

Take a Test to Help You Choose a Program

If you’re unsure which program to pick, take our anonymous online test to check how you feel and see which program may be suitable. This test will show you your levels of stress, anxiety, or depression and will make suggestions on what you can do next.

Stay in Touch!

Join our e-mail community

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on new programs, research, and evidence-based therapeutic activities to improve your well-being, straight to your inbox.