Helping Someone Through A Panic Attack
A panic attack is characterised by its short yet intense fear character. Symptoms or signs of a panic attack may include; intense fear, a sense of doom, sweating or chills, shaking, pounding heart, difficulty breathing and or head or chest pains. You are correct when you say that these responses are the response of fear, however what differs panic attacks from an automatic fear response is that there is no actual threat. As panic attack triggers aren’t easy to identify, people who have them often fear going out in public. When an individual is having a panic attack they fear that they’re experiencing a heart attack or life threatening issue. If you are with someone who is having a panic attack, here are some things to keep in mind to help them work through it.
Panic attacks typically don’t last long. However, to the person having one, time may become distorted and they might not have a concept of time. Even if you are afraid, try to remain calm and use a calm tone of voice. The person having a panic attack may or may not tell you to stop. If they do tell you to stop, respect their wishes. If they don’t, continue to talk to them in a calm manner. Here are some things that are recommended you say to someone who is having a panic attack:
- Reassure them that you won’t leave
- Remind them that panic attacks won’t last long
- Telling them that their safe
Ask how you can help
Those suffering with anxiety and panic attacks have their own go to coping methods or techniques. Although you may have some great suggestions and methods to attempt to calm your loved one down, it is important to understand that your loved one knows what is right for them and what helps them the most. Although it is difficult to communicate this during a panic attack, it is ok to calmly ask what you can do to support them. It is important to remain neutral and not take anything they say to heart or personally.
Learn the warning signs
It is important to recognise and acknowledge the warning signs at the beginning of a panic attack. Here are some general signs to look out for:
- a feeling of terror or dread
- hyperventilation or shortness of breath
- feelings of choking
- a pounding heart
- dizziness and shaking
As every person is different it is imperative that you ask what signs your loved one tends to experience. It is important to catch these signs as it gives you time to take them to a private place or wherever they feel more comfortable.
Focus on actions over words
Although the initial reaction to someone who is having a panic attack is saying things like “don’t worry” or asking them if they’re alright repeatedly, it is best to ask them things like:
- Asking if they want to leave the room and go somewhere else
- Reminding them to keep breathing
- Engaging them in light conversation, unless they say the don’t want to talk
Understand their panic may not make sense to you or them
Panic attacks can be confusing and scary for both you and your loved one. They are unpredictable and have no clear cause. It is important that, although you or them don’t know why they occur, that you be that person who offers empathy and compassion, through there tough moments.
Validate their distress
People do not share their mental illness as they believe that others will judge or not understand. People, due to their lack of understanding of panic attacks, may even consider it illogical. By not judging, you are invalidating that person’s mental illness and distress. An empathetic, validating thing to say may include ““That sounds really tough. I’m sorry you experience that. Let me know what I can do to support you.”
Help them stay grounded
During an anxiety or panic attack, it is important to stay grounded. Staying grounded or grounding techniques can help your loved one contain their panic. The concept behind grounding techniques is to focus something other than their panic attack. Some grounding techniques include:
- Physical touch, holding their hand (with their consent)
- Give them a textured object to feel
- Encouraging them to move or stretch
- Encouraging them to repeat a soothing phrase like “this feels awful, but it’s not going to hurt me”
- Talking slowly and calmly about familiar places or activities
Respect their needs
After a panic attack, your friend will be exhausted. As panic can happen anywhere at any time, it may occur when you and your friend or loved one are out or about to see a movie or a show. On some occasions, your friend or loved one may ask you to take them home rather than coming to see the show with you. I understand how disappointing and upsetting this may feel for you but it is important to respect your friends’ wishes and needs. It is important to keep in mind that what they are going through is not their fault and that they have no control over their feelings.
Some things to avoid
I know you are a good friend. However, as human beings we can say things at times without realizing it may offend or hurt others. I’ve been there and done that.
- Don’t compare normal stress to and fear to panic: I know this is a difficult time for you too as no one wants to see their friend distraught. However, it is important to keep in mind to avoid drawing comparisons between your different experiences, unless you get panic attacks.
- Don’t shame or minimise: It is important to not deny the reality of their panic as this can further push them into isolation. Avoid sentences and questions like:
- “Just relax. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
- “You’re upset over that?”
- “What’s wrong with you?”
- Don’t give advice: It is important to not give advice throughout a friend’s panic or even when they aren’t having a panic attack, unless you suffer from panic attacks then you are able to suggest helpful techniques.
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When do you get additional help?
Watching your friend or loved one have a panic attack can be scary, but at what point do you call on someone else?. It is important to look for signs such as:
- chest pain feels like squeezing (not stabbing) and moves to their arms or shoulders
- symptoms persist for longer than 20 minutes and get worse, not better
- shortness of breath doesn’t improve
- pressure in the chest lasts more than a minute or two