A panic attack is a brief, intense sensation of fear that may include other symptoms such as head and chest pain, difficulty breathing, pounding heart, chills or sweat, shaking and a sense of doom. They are different from a normal fear response because there is no real threat involved. For anxious people, the body sends the signal of danger although there is none present. A panic attack can lead to significant distress and it feels as uncomfortable as a heart-attack. In fact, most people who experience a panic attack feel as if they have a life-threatening issue.
However, there are some things you can do to help someone that has a panic attack in that moment.
The most important thing is to remain calm because a panic attack won’t last long. So keep cool for those intense 5-10 minutes, even if the other person looks so terrified as if they’re about to die and try to talk to them with a calm voice. Reassure them that you won’t leave and remind them that they are safe and that the panic won’t last too long. Ask if there’s a way you can help but keep in mind that this person might have its own coping methods and they know best what’s working best for them.
If you know that your loved one has panic attacks ask them in advance what to do to support them because they might find it difficult to say it to you when it happens. The fight-or-flight stress response affects their ability to think or to behave logically, so try to not take their response personally and always remain neutral.
If they ask you to leave and they’re not in danger, give them space but stay nearby so you can keep an eye on them. If they change their mind, you’ll be able to come back and support them.
You can also familiarize yourself with the warning signs of a potential panic attack so you’ll be prepared for what’s happening. A panic attach starts with a feeling of terror and hyperventilation or shortness of breath. The person feels as if they’re choking and their heart begins to pound. They might begin to feel dizzy or to shake. Ask them how it usually starts for them because not everyone experiences in the same way a panic attack.
Try to focus on actions instead of asking them all the time if they’re well or telling them not to worry. Get into a more private place where they feel comfortable and take actions with your words. Remind them to keep breathing, ask if they want you to go in another room or try to engage in a small conversation unless they don’t ask you the opposite.
Because it doesn’t have a clear cause, a panic attack can be pretty confusing so the person that gets it begins to be afraid of the symptoms itself, linking them to a more serious health issue. So, don’t tell your friend that there’s nothing to be afraid of because they probably know this already, just allow the other person enough space to return to baseline.
Even if you don’t understand what caused that panic attack, validate your friend’s distress as being significant and real and try to offer empathy. There are a lot of people that are worried about being judged so they don’t share their experience with others. Others will say that is not a big deal since they consider panic attacks illogical but as long as you tell them that you understand it’s tough and you’ll be there to support if needed, everything should be all right.
There are also some grounding techniques that can help the person focus on what’s happening until the intensity of the attack fades away. Physical touch may work so hold their hand if they are OK with this, give them a textures object to feel or encourage them to move or stretch. You can also start a conversation about familiar activities or places.
It is very important to respect your friend’s needs even if the panic attack ended. So if you previously had plans and they cancel the plans and want to go home instead, even if you’re disappointed, understand and respect their needs. They will feel wiped out after this extreme fear response and even guilty for ruining your plans. Don’t ask to much from them if you don’t want to aggravate their healing process.
So, if someone tells you about their panic attacks, show respect for their experience and take it as a sign of trust. Be mindful with the words you use and respond with compassion. Even if your intentions are good don’t make the other person feel bad about his experience and definitely don’t compare stress with the panic attack.
No stressful situation compares with a panic attack so unless you didn’t experience one, you won’t be able to understand what your friend feels. If you did, remember that they don’t just feel stressed but also helpless and unable to cope with the situation. They experience physical discomfort or pain so never minimize or shame their experience.
Even if they know that the fear response, they experience is illogical, if they hear it from you, they will only increase their isolation and feel worse. So avoid telling them “what’s wrong with you, there’s nothing to be afraid of” or “you’re upset over that small thing” or anything similar with these.
Don’t make your friend feel ashamed and don’t deny the reality of their distress and don’t give advice because your coping techniques might not work for them. Even if deep breathing or other relaxation techniques could help, your friend might not be interested in your suggestion.
When to get help
Well, this is not an easy question since calling the emergency number can make the situation more stressful for the person that has a panic attack. However, it can make a significant difference, of some of these symptoms don’t improve. So, reach out for emergency if the shortness of breath still persists after 20 minutes or it gets worse, if the chest pain feels more like squeezing and moves to the shoulders and arms or if the pressure, they feel in the chase lasts for more than one minute or two.