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Watching a loved one suffer from panic attacks is a terrible thing to witness. It’s even worse when you have absolutely no idea on how to handle the situation. Do you sit and stare? Ask them if they’re okay? Call for an ambulance?! Panic?!!
Unfortunately, not knowing what to do can create more anxiety on both parties, and even make their panic attack worse. If you don’t know what to do, don’t try to help. More than likely, the person suffering the attack will have an idea of what to do. If they need help, they’ll ask. As someone who has a panic disorder, nothing is more frustrating than someone trying to help who has NO idea of what they are doing.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden feeling of acute and disabling anxiety and/or fear in which there is no real danger or apparent cause. One may have an overwhelming sense of impending doom, regardless of actual events or situations. These attacks can range in severity and length, with no real way of discerning either. When these attacks occur many people often believe that they are having a heart attack, or dying.
First: Recognize a Panic Attack
As someone viewing another person going into a panic attack, it is important to recognize the attack correctly, but it is certainly not easy. The person having the attack will often know that they are about to go into an attack, and may even tell you, but there are times when they will either not know what is happening or be too panicked to explain what is happening. Each person will go through their attacks differently, but the physical symptoms are often similar enough to recognize. The person will often shake uncontrollably, sweat, may have difficulty breathing as well as speaking, speaking may be rapid and/or incoherent, and will display a tightness of chest (either by grasping or rubbing at their chest). They may also cry, scream, or thrash about as their fight or flight instincts kick in.
A person suffering from a panic attack may often have problems breathing and often start to hyperventilate. While it is important to deal with their panicked thoughts, first and foremost it is important to get their breathing under control as best as you can. Simply instructing them to “breathe,” can go a long way, and may even help to gain control over the attack. It is easy to forget how to breathe in such a panicked state. Get them to breathe along with you: Slow and steady; in for five seconds and then out for five seconds. This will help to relax them, and may even calm yourself as well.
Third: Offer Distraction
Once their breathing is under some kind of control, it may help to distract them from their fears and anxiety. Instruct them to repeat after you. You can have them recite a favorite song, poem, or something as mundane as numbers. If you chose numbers, mix them up. A brain is unable to count in an improper order and continue to panic (i.e. 1, 13, 6, 3, 11, 7, etc.)
Another way to distract them is to ask them questions, in which they have to answer. Depending on how severe the attack is, you may have to prod them to answer. Start with something simple, and become more elaborate as they become calmer.
Fourth: Do not ask them if they are okay!
Don’t start by asking if they are okay. They are already panicked, and this can cause their panic to rise as they start thinking of whether they are okay or not. More often than not, they will think, “I’m not okay, something is wrong with me…” even to the point that they think they are dying. If you suspect they are going into a panic attack, and want to confirm, ask them “Is it an attack?” or something similar (if you must). It is much better to calm them by assuring them that they ARE okay, and that nothing’s wrong.
Fifth: Give them space.
It is important that you do not make them feel any more trapped than they are already feeling. Most times, they will not want to be restrained in any way (even if it’s a hug). Make sure they know that you are there for them, but do not restrict their movements as much as possible. They may cling to you, may even feel safer with an arm wrapped around them. However, if they push you away, let them go.
Each person who suffers from panic attacks will find different things will help them cope better than others. If you are asked to help them cope, it may be a good idea to sit down and discuss how they want you to help, even if it’s just to keep other people away.