Panic attacks shouldn’t be confused with stress or general anxiety, as these are extreme, unbearable, and sudden waves of anxiety and fear, often accompanied by shallow breathing, the hallmark of panic attacks. As you may imagine, it’s no surprise that panic attacks feel overwhelming for those who experience them, but they can also be paralyzing to those present while someone else is experiencing an attack.
If you’re not sure how you should react or help a person having a panic attack, especially if a family member, coworker, or friend tends to get them from time to time, read on. There are several grounding techniques you can use to alleviate the intensity of an attack and help them be more grounded and calm. We explain some of these techniques below:
1. Stay as calm as possible
In order to be able to aid someone during a panic attack, you must understand the dynamics of the condition. Firstly, it’s important to note that anyone can get a panic attack for no apparent reason, and the onset of the condition is typically sudden and unexpected.
While many people experience recurring panic attacks, and they will often know to recognize them for what they are and how to deal with them, others only get only one or two panic attacks throughout their lifetime. Those who don’t have any experience with panic attacks may confuse the condition for something else, often a heart attack, which may further worsen their symptoms. However, unlike a heart attack, a panic attack is typically caused by stress and will resolve within 20-30 minutes.
This is important to know for you as an observer, as you will need to decide whether or not to call an ambulance. Though the symptoms of a panic attack can seem extreme and may manifest through shortness of breath, chest pain, sweating, and shaking, they will go away on their own. Knowing this will help you remain calm and be there for the person during a panic attack.
If you feel that you're getting nervous or irritated yourself and can't stay calm in the situation, it's better to withdraw, if possible, as a negative attitude can worsen their experience even more.
2. Connect with the person having an attack
Talking to a person experiencing a panic attack can be a lot more beneficial than one might think, as it can distract them from their symptoms and calm their breathing. That said, some people familiar with the condition may prefer staying silent or even on their own, so make sure to always ask if a person needs your help and company instead of just assuming that they do without asking.
If the person agrees to accept your help, here are some useful tips:
1. If you don't know the person, you can introduce yourself and ask them if they had a panic attack before. If so, inquire how they have dealt with them in the past, as this can help the sufferer remember the calming technique they may already know.
2. Ask the person if they need to go to a calmer place, especially if you're in a crowded and loud place, but don't press them to do so, the main thing is to keep them comfortable.
3. Support the person by letting them know that you're there for them. Remind them that the attack will not last long, and offer other kind words.
4. If you know the person well, you can try distracting them by bringing up topics interesting for the person experiencing an attack.
That said, avoid telling a person that they have to calm down and the like because this is rarely helpful and may sound judgmental, which could make matters far worse.
Sometimes, a panic attack can be so overwhelming that a person will lose their connection to reality and their surroundings. If you notice that happening, suggest one of the following:
1. Offer a seat on a comfortable chair or couch, give them a pillow and blanket, if possible. Going back to the previously-mentioned tips, your goal is to make the person feel more comfortable and relaxed.
2. Try to bring the person back to reality by asking them what day of the week it is, what they had for breakfast, or any other mundane and basic question. You can even ask them to do some simple mathematical calculations.
3. The 5-4-3-2-1 method. This trick is often used by psychotherapists and it is known for helping a person having an attack focus on their surroundings and their senses. Ask the person to look around and identify 5 things they see, 4 items they can touch, 3 sounds they can hear, 2 smells they can perceive, and 1 taste.
4. Help them breathe more steadily
Fast and irregular breathing is the main cause of many unpleasant symptoms of panic attacks, such as chest pain, dizziness, and a racing heart. That's why it's important to help the person get their breathing under control. Some patients will be familiar with some sort of breathing technique, such as Tactical Breathingor the like, and if they do, just let them proceed.
If, however, they need your assistance, the best thing you can do is breathe slowly and deeply yourself and ask the person to mirror your breathing several times until you see that their breathing pattern is returning to normal. Doctors point out that you should NEVER give the patient a paper bag to breathe through during a panic attack, as this can lead to them losing consciousness.
Those suffering from panic attacks are often anxious people, and the unpleasant experience you've shared may lead them to be ashamed or afraid to talk to you again. Show your support by checking in with them from time to time, calling or otherwise communicating with them to help them feel more at ease with their condition.
When to Seek Help
Firstly, if you know nothing about the person or their health conditions, and they're not willing to communicate with you, don't try to force them and call the ambulance because what seems like a panic attack could also end up being a heart attack or another life-threatening condition.
You should also call an ambulance if the panic attack doesn't seem to stop for a long time, a person is vomiting, and experiencing pain in the extremities, chest pain, or say that they feel like they're dying. After all, it's safer for you to call the ambulance and then find out that the person was only experiencing a panic attack than miss a health emergency.
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