Everyone feels anxiety from time to time. But a panic attack is a different experience.
As the name suggests, it’s a sudden and intense feeling of fear. A sense of doom sweeps over you, even when there’s no real threat. Panic attacks can happen when you’re under stress, but they can also happen when everything seems to be going just fine.
Because you can’t know when a panic attack is going to happen, this can make you feel even more stressed. The experience can also be stressful for friends and family members who watch it happen.
Fortunately, you can help a loved one manage this uncomfortable and often confusing situation.
First, recognize the signs.
Just as anxiety shows up in different ways for different people, the symptoms of a panic attack can also vary. If you know someone who has panic attacks, get to know their specific symptoms.
Some common signs include:
- Chills, numbness or tingling sensation
- Detachment from reality or oneself
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Increased heart rate
- Pain or discomfort in the chest
- Shortness of breath or choking sensation
- Sudden fear of impending death
- Sweating and trembling
The symptoms may not last long before going away. In some cases, the strongest symptoms may only last 10 minutes or less. But this is enough time for the person to feel like the attack is a life-threatening condition.
Next, be reliable.
Recognize that this situation requires you to remain calm. By doing so, you’ll help your loved one feel safer and more secure. If you begin to panic too, the person may mistakenly believe that something is wrong.
Make time to stick around for the whole panic attack. You don’t want to leave them alone with this feeling of intense discomfort. Also, be willing to sit and talk with your loved one even after the symptoms are going away.
Remember to talk with them.
You might feel tempted to tell your friend that nothing is wrong. You might want to tell them they should stop worrying. This probably won’t help. A person can still have a panic attack while also realizing there’s no immediate threat to them.
Instead, try to be understanding. Ask your friend if they’ve had similar symptoms in the past. Find out from them how the situation turned out. This might help them come to the realization that this feeling will go away fast and everything will soon be back to normal.
Help get their mind off of the panic attack symptoms by starting a casual conversation. When doing this, don’t minimize the symptoms. Don’t force them to talk if they’re not interested in it. If you’re in a public space, ask your friend if they want to leave or get some fresh air.
Help them by focusing on the present.
Grounding techniques are useful for managing symptoms of a panic attack. These involve engaging your surroundings with your senses, rather than focusing on mental feelings of fear.
Here are some tips to follow:
- Call attention to sounds around you. Encourage your friend to listen to those sounds. Perhaps a song is playing, people are talking or birds are chirping in the distance.
- Hand your friend something to hold and encourage them to focus on the texture. A piece of ice, a ring of keys, an article of clothing — almost anything can work for this.
- If there is food or drink nearby, encourage your friend to focus on the smell and describe it. Other fragrances, such as the smell of a candle, can also help ground a person.
- Suggest doing a few stretches or going for a short walk outside. However, be aware that intense exercise can be hard if they’re experiencing shortness of breath.
Finally, never downplay their experience or act like an expert.
Unless you’ve experienced a panic attack yourself, don’t attempt to compare your friend’s experience with your own anxiety. Avoid saying, “relax” or “there’s no reason to be afraid.” This can come off as dismissive of the problem.
Resist the urge to offer in-depth solutions unless your friend asks for your opinion. When you do offer your opinion, remember that what works for you may not work for them. Don’t be upset if they don’t want to try your suggestion.
And sometimes, the most useful approach is to encourage your loved one to find a mental health expert. You can support them by helping their search for licensed professionals.
Learn more about the behavioral and mental health services we offer at Bon Secours.