What to do when someone is in the middle of a panic attack!
You may know your friend or loved one has anxiety, but when they are in the middle of a panic attack it can be almost as frightening to watch as to actually be experiencing it! Of course it’s an intensely frightening experience for them, but for you as the observer it’s a different kind of stress- how do you help them, when no matter what you say, the panic attack isn’t stopping?
The first thing is to keep things very calm; slow your talking, keep your voice tone even. Use reassuring words- “We will get through this, you have come through these before.” Encouragement and sitting out the attack with them while being a comforting presence, is really helpful. Company always helps- think of being stuck in a traffic jam alone, versus having good company. This happened to me a few years ago during load shedding, on the way back from an interview in Auckland Park which I’d driven a speaker from the US to. Traffic gridlocked like I have never experienced, and there was literally nowhere to go. Fortunately he is a CBT specialist so the 2 hours inching along were spent with me being calm- to reassure him that we’d get out of it eventually, and him chatting about the latest research- to keep me calm!
A lot is written about the role of avoidance in maintaining anxiety, and this is completely true. In fact, avoidance is the most effective way of stopping anxiety immediately- but it has no power to prevent another attack later, so it can be used as long as you know it’s a quick fix. Having said that, sometimes you need to use a ‘band aid’ during an emergency, and think about fixing the underlying issue when things have calmed down. This brings me to distraction. This works very well, if you can keep it up for a few minutes. A panic attack lasts 2-4 minutes, so you need to keep the person busy thinking about anything else, for at least this long, to interfere with the panic cycle.
These are a few quick techniques you can apply in the moment. It would also help you a lot to read through my article on coping with panic, on this site; it gives you essential information about panic attacks that you can remind the person of- during and after an attack. For example, people experiencing panic often feel like they could be dying or going crazy. It may really help to remind them that ‘the feeling is real, even though the alarm is false.’ You may need to repeat these things a few times, in an even and reassuring tone, to talk the person down. Remember, if you feel confident in what you are saying, it’s most likely going to have a calming effect on the person having the attack. Knowledge is power!
If you’ve been living with someone who has panic, especially if it’s gone on for a long time, your own stress levels could be quite high too. You could be feeling quite exhausted as well, and maybe you could do with some relaxation for yourself. Check out the free articles on stress, panic and exhaustion on this site, also the guided Relaxation on the homepage- just press play!