A panic attack can be the most frightening experience in someone’s life.
Forget exams, job interviews, your first date or losing your job. When you get thrown into the arms of a panic attack, nothing will feel more overwhelming. I know because I have been there.
Perhaps you have a friend or a relative living with anxiety. Knowing what to do in these moments, can help your friend and make you understand anxiety better.
Not long ago, I saw someone I know going through physical symptoms of a panic attack during an elevator trip. See, I always tell friends who take the elevator with me that I’m claustrophobic and I might panic at one point. But this friend never said anything. She always had a brave look on her face, thus, I assumed she is not bothered by narrow places.
However, when the elevator we were in got stuck for a moment, she turned her back at me. After a while, I realized she started crying and got my attention. When we got out, she was shaking and trying to catch her breath. I asked her if she was in panic and she said yes.
Then, I asked if she knew before that she was afraid of elevators and she said she had no idea. The panic took her by surprise. But there was another thing that worried me more than my friend’s panic: our friends’ reaction.
Yes, we were with other friends in the elevator but, no one said or did anything to calm our friend down.
I can’t really blame them because, who in the world knows the symptoms of a panic attack? Unless they know how it feels or have a relative that has the disorder, they don’t have so much interest for it.
To learn more about the symptoms, check out this article on Mayo Clinic’s website.
What to do?
1. Refrain from giving advice such as ‘Calm down’, ‘It’s all in your head’ or ‘Stop being silly’.
These are judgemental and highly critical statements that make the person’s problem all about yourself.
Psychologists discovered that, this lack of empathy could even increase anxiety levels. Even a person who wouldn’t know what a panic attack feels like would see these statements as rude. But people still use these statements thinking that they’ll help the person get over the situation soon.
The worst thing someone ever said to me during an anxiety moment was ‘Why can’t you help yourself? You’re smart, you studied Psychology! Pull yourself together’.
2. Don’t say ‘Get over it, it’s just anxiety’.
For most of us with anxiety, things are not that simple.
We learned to defend ourselves from our own emotions through anxiety. If the anxiety sufferer does not know how to get angry or assert himself, he’ll continue to wallow in his negative feelings. Having anxiety is quite complicated because it involves inner conflict and very strong defense mechanisms.
Check out my post about panic attacks and The Sopranos. The TV show explains very well why panic attacks never leave people who haven’t dealt with their pain.
3. Ask him to talk about what he feels and listen carefully
Listening to someone who goes through a panic attack without judging him or invalidating his feelings can help a lot. This empathetic approach validates the person’s suffering, which will teach him to trust people and be less frightened by their reactions.
Remember that, for the anxiety sufferer, the fear is as real as the weather outside. If someone tells you they freeze in front of the fruit section in the supermarket, believe him. His fear of supermarkets is as real as your fear of heights or spiders.
4. Let the person know that you’re there for him
To hear someone saying that they’re there for you no matter what, is very encouraging for an anxiety sufferer. Sincerely, no one has every told me that while I was in the throes of daily anxiety years ago.
If you have anxiety, try to surround yourself with kind and empathetic people, so you don’t have to live like Buster Bluth. This character from Arrested Development has severe panic attacks, while having to deal with his cold and emotionless relatives.
It is hard for someone with panic to say what he needs help with. The reason for this is the embarrassment that comes with having a panic attack. If he was judged in the past for being anxious, he would rather keep the symptoms to himself to avoid possible negative reactions. In my case, I would rarely show my anxiety to people, out of fear of being reprimanded. This is again related to the quality of relationships in the anxiety sufferer’s life.
If you see someone going through anxiety, ask him/her what does it usually help to calm down? Maybe he wants to talk about his bodily sensations or change the subject and talk about something else entirely. Maybe he knows breathing exercises he can do (you can even practice them with him). Or maybe he just wants to be left alone and write down his feelings.
6. ‘We’re in this together’
Being in the moment with the person going through a panic attack might not be easy but, it’s worth it. It builds confidence in the sufferer and increases your own tolerance for mental health issues. And, in the long run, it will strengthen your relationship.
Remember that we all have feelings and you would also like for someone to be there for you during tough times.
The same goes for helping a stranger during a panic attack. I believe that, by doing so, you’ll give him a great gift to hold on to: the realization that people are kind and willing to help others, in spite of all the mental illness stigma that psychologists are talking about.
What is the unhelpful advice you have received during an anxiety attack? Leave a comment or share this post to those who might need it.