Panic attacks are seen as a very scary part of anxiety and therefore watching a loved one go through one can feel terrifying. Oftentimes feeling helpless and fearful, this blog has been written to help uncover how to help someone.
It is crucial to remember that this will differ from person to person. For example, symptoms and coping mechanisms may be different. Perhaps reading this through with a loved one who may need help through these times may allow for them to tell you what will help them.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a fear response that is your body’s reaction to danger. The difference between a normal fear response and a panic attack is that the symptoms of a normal fear response are simply a lot bigger. This is often a result of a large amount of anxiety.
Symptoms often include:
- a racing heartbeat
- sweating more than normal
- catastrophic thinking
- pain in your chest
There are many more symptoms that people experience and often differ from person to person. These are just the main telltale signs. The person going through this may feel like they cannot breathe or are having a heart attack. This can be really scary to hear but it’s important to remember a panic attack itself cannot cause this.
What can cause them?
Absolutely anything can cause an attack and it is completely dependent on the person. It could be seen to you as a very small problem but that may be of big importance to the person affected. Depending on what may have caused the attack changes what may help that person.
The most important thing to help someone else go through a panic attack is to stay calm. If you think about that person’s brain being very overwhelmed with emotions, you need to stay calm in order to not add to this. Make sure you also physically stay with that person during the attack, this simply helps them feel comforted and in itself can aid a person to calm down.
Controlled breathing is another crucial part of coming down from an attack. Often during panic attacks, the person’s breathing will become very fast such as hyperventilating. There are many different techniques to create controlled breathing. One resource for this can be found on youtube here.
Tip: Make sure during controlled breathing the person is breathing out longer than they are breathing in!
How can you help someone with controlled breathing?
It may seem difficult to help someone with controlling their breathing but there are a few ways you can help!
- Displaying: doing controlled breathing in front of the person going through an attack can be a helpful way to help that person.
- Pressure: holding a person’s hand or holding them in a hug can help as a grounding technique.
Ask yourself a few questions about the location you are in.
Has this location triggered the person?
Is it too loud or too quiet?
Are they in a crowded situation?
Is it visually overstimulating and may be causing sensory overload?
(Click here for an insightful blog on sensory overload)
The important thing here is to recognise if the space you are in is going to make the situation worse. It may not have had any effect. If you do not feel as though you can or should move that person perhaps try and change their surroundings in other ways.
Examples of other ways to change surroundings:
- Give the person earphones if they are overwhelmed with noise.
- Find something for them to hold (perhaps a teddy bear or sensory item).
- If that person is comfortable ask if they would like a hug to help calm them.
Validate their emotions
Often times a person going through a panic attack can feel worse if they feel like a burden or are embarrassed by going through this in front of someone. Validating their emotions can make them feel as ease to focus on themselves. Your aim for this situation is to help them focus on their own emotions and not think about other things.
Things you could say to validated someone’s emotions:
- You are safe.
- This won’t last long.
- I understand why you are feeling this way, I am here to help.
Asking a person what they want is the most important tip on this blog. As stated above each person will have a different reaction or different coping mechanisms. You cannot simply force what you think will help a person. Make sure to ask that person when they are in a calm state. Perhaps start by asking (if they are comfortable) what happened in their last panic attack.
How did they get themselves to a state of calm?
What made them feel better/worse?
What do they think someone could do to help?
This can be a really helpful way for you to truly understand how to help.
Checking in after
This links to the above point of asking the person what they need. Checking in after, however, differs in the sense that you need to make sure they are in a safe environment. Create a safe environment for the person to feel a sense of calm and make sure you ensure they stay in this feeling of calm afterwards. They most likely will be very tired and may just need some comfort. Try not to ask too many questions straight after as this may be a bit too much at first. Perhaps wait until the next day.
Overall, panic attacks are a scary time for everyone involved. It is really scary for the person going through them however it can be equally frightening if this is a loved one. This blog was made to help that fear of powerlessness a lot of people encounter when wanting to help someone through a panic attack.
The crucial thing out of all of this is that you need to make sure you refer to the person you are trying to help and what they need on an individual basis. These tips are an amazing place to start and give you tools to have ideas on how to help but it is so important to check in on your loved one. Remember to always stay calm and you can help!
I hope you have found this blog post useful! If you have any tips on how you help yourself or others through a panic attack leave them in the comments to hopefully help others.
You can find another helpful blog post about anxiety here:
Thank you to Brett Jordan, Jan Tinneberg, Andreas Dress and Dương Hữu for the photography!