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Finding Calm: Matt Gutman’s Insights on Communication Amid Panic

Bombs. Gunfire. Hurricane-force winds. Matt Gutman, chief national correspondent for ABC News, has years of experience communicating in adverse conditions, from war zones to school shootings to natural disasters, with millions of viewers of the nightly news hanging on his every word.

Not everyone has to deliver presentations to millions of people as part of their professional interactions, but we can relate to stress and anxiety in communicating on the job.

Millions of us can also relate to another, more personal story — one that Gutman hasn’t told until now. For decades, he’s battled panic disorder, experiencing panic attacks while reporting live on location, and trying to hide them out of shame.

About 5% of the U.S. population, or 16.5 million people, have experienced panic disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, and 28% of Americans — that’s about 90 million — will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetimes, making it more common than we might think.

Going beyond a simple case of nerves, panic disorder is defined by the NIH as “unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These episodes occur ‘out of the blue,’ not in conjunction with a known fear or stressor.”

At work, clarity in communication is important, but so is composure.

Gutman, who spoke at a private event attended by Alphy in Los Angeles last week, has made compartmentalizing his own PTSD incurred on the job a part of his coping mechanism at work. In addition to reporting from war zones and the Uvalde school shooting, he was once held captive in Venezuela for days and accused of being a spy.

But in 2020, the compartmentalization broke down when he made a serious mistake that he attributes to a panic attack. The incident involved the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, 41, his daughter, Gianna, 13, and seven others. Gutman mistakenly reported on-air that all four of Bryant's children were in the crash. Although he corrected and apologized for the error, he was suspended for a month. (Gutman was 12 when his own father died in a plane crash at 42.)

The repercussion was serious enough to lead him to ask himself whether he should quit. Instead, he stopped hiding his condition and opened up to his superiors about his panic attacks. Then, he began to look beyond the anti-anxiety medications he had been taking for decades to find a more definitive cure.

That research, which spanned several years and involved interviews with evolutionary biologists and psychologists and personal experimentation with psychedelics, became the basis for his new book, No Time To Panic: How I Curbed My Anxiety and Conquered a Lifetime of Panic Attacks, which hit bookstores Sept. 12.

“I would like to see more acceptance of this in society,” Gutman says. “It’s got to start with the sufferers, who have to be more open with what’s happening to them. It’s incumbent on us to move the needle.”

In TV interviews and events including his appearance at a POSTHOC salon in Los Angeles — a lively evening of food, drink and conversation, where he was interviewed by salon founder Susan Mactavish Best before more than 100 guests in rapt attention — Gutman is attempting to destigmatize the condition.

His book is a poignant memoir that also reveals the science behind panic disorder and shows that humans are wired by nature to be anxious. Gutman also relays his experiences with treatments ranging from numerous pharmaceutical antidepressants to experiments with psychedelics such as magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, and ketamine (under guided conditions), which helped him tap into his long-buried pain.

He notes that we may never completely cure panic disorder — some people will go a decade without a panic attack, and then experience a recurrence — but we can adopt best practices for managing it along the way. Chief among them, he writes, is taking care of our physical health by exercising, to release endorphins that help us feel better. Crying can be therapeutic for relieving anxiety and grief, he notes (and did a lot of it during his experiments). He also advocates for meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy, to calm the mind.

In the moment, there are other techniques that can be useful, he tells Alphy in a brief interview.

Recognize the signs of a panic attack. Whether at work or outside the office, becoming aware of and naming what you are feeling — tingly hands, shortness of breath, a feeling of unreality, and more — is the first step in coming to terms with a panic attack. It’s important to remember that you won't feel like this forever. The peak of the panic is fleeting — typically 60 to 90 seconds, Gutman says.

Distract your brain. “I focus on the five senses — five things I see, four things I hear, three things I sense or feel — like my feet on the ground, two things that I smell, and one thing that I taste,” Gutman says. “You’ve got to do all five. Your brain can’t focus on the anxiety when you’re forcing it to do another task.”

Breathe. “Do a simulated sigh, breathing deep all the way in, and then top it off with as much air as you can pack in,” he says. “They’re very good for reducing anxiety.”

Share. Build a culture of understanding at work by telling your manager and coworkers you experience panic attacks. It worked for Gutman. “They were very understanding,” he says. “My boss at the time was just like, it was almost a non-conversation — ‘I’m so sorry to hear that’ — and we segued into other conversation. I wish I had talked to them sooner. I was surprised. I thought it would be a big deal. It really wasn’t.”

Carolyne Zinko is the editorial director and AI editor at Alphy.

Reflect AI by Alphy is a SaaS platform that flags harmful language, including topic, tone, “isms,” confidence, mindset and appropriateness. Our AI language classifier detects risks in emails prior to send, flags conversational missteps (and successes) in video meetings in real-time, and upskills individual communication with targeted and personalized microlearning.


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