If you have read my previous post on what a panic attack actually entails, then you’re probably left wondering how you can help someone experiencing those horrors. During the eleven or so years I’ve been living with Generalised Anxiety and Panic Disorder, I’ve come to know certain situations that trigger my panic attacks, and certain things that those around me can do; some of which might seem conflicting. If you are with someone and they are experiencing a panic attack, here’s my advice to help them.
Always use a calm, monotone of voice. Ensure them that you’re there for them, that you’re not going anywhere, and that you love them. Use your calm tone to remind them to breathe, even if you have to actually say the words ‘in and out’.
Hug them, pretty tight. Hug them around their waist, ensuring that their arms are still free and not restricted. Hold enough pressure to let them know you’ve physically and emotionally ‘got them’ without restricting their movement. If they push you away, let them. Give them space to breathe but keep physical contact. Put your hand on their leg or the middle of their back.
If you’re going to kiss them, avoid being in their face. I’ve always found it much less invasive and a lot more comforting to have my partner kiss my forehead, or shoulder, or temple when I’m panicking. A panic attack comes with a lot of feelings of entrapment and restriction, so avoid being a part of that in any way.
If there is a specific situation making them uneasy, do your best to get them out of it. If they’re uncomfortable in big crowds, take their hand and lead them out. If they don’t like the stuffy pub you’re in, take them outside for some air. If you can see they’re uncomfortable around certain people, do your best to help them leave.
Get them some fresh air, as soon as possible. If this means having them sit up in bed next to an open window, so be it. Open a door to the room you’re in if they don’t want to go outside, or take them outside for some fresh air if they’re willing. This usually helps to calm someone panicking – a lot. The fresh air provides not only an ease of breathing, but a cool refreshing feeling, and usually, a much less chaotic environment.
This one might sound a little strange, but in the early onset of a panic attack, before it has reached the elevation stage, pretend to ignore it. I suppose I mean more, play it down. If someone is beginning to panic, and you look them in the face with wide eyes telling them they don’t look so good, then they realise that they actually might be in trouble. Especially if they’re trying to ignore it themselves, and then realise that everyone around them knows what’s going on. Distract and play it cool. Remove them from the situation by saying things like “come to the bathroom/to get a drink/outside with me.”
Grab them a good old-fashioned glass of water. Cool water, combined with a lot of reassurance and love, and fresh air, can really calm someone down. You can even encourage them to splash some on their face, to refresh and awaken them.
Reassure them, even once you’re convinced they’re already reassured. Remind them that it’s okay, that their feelings are valid. And don’t let them use words like crazy/stupid/worthless when they talk about themselves or their experience. Let them know that they come first, that nothing in this moment is more important than their well-being and safety. This is especially comforting in the middle of the night when all you want to do is sleep but you’re up reassuring them anyway.
Repeat everything you’ve read, over and over again, until they’ve completely calmed down. Don’t be so sure they’ve calmed down if the obvious symptoms disappear. There’s nothing worse than feeling ‘abandoned’ during a panic attack. Stick it out, and you’ll learn how to tackle it all together.
Overall, the greatest thing you can do for someone during a panic attack is to just love them unconditionally, and make sure they know that. There have been times when anxiety and panic run freely all over my self-confidence. Where mental illness determines how I perceive myself, and how I believe others perceive me. So there’s no greater feeling than unconditional love, show it as much as possible, especially at times when the person panicking can’t seem to love themselves.
Panicking is extraordinarily embarrassing, it’s one of those times where anxiety just shows up and won’t let you schedule a more convenient appointment for it. So knowing that someone is there for you, through the entire ordeal, to help guide you away from what it is that’s overwhelming you, or just to be there holding your hand, can make an entire world of difference.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, be sure to head to our Resources and Helplines page to learn more about mental illness, and where to get help. If you’d like to speak to someone now, you can call Life Line on 13 11 14 or 000 in Australia if your life is in danger.
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