One evening I was sitting on the sofa with my younger brother watching TV, when I was suddenly overwhelmed with unexplainable fear. I became tearful and felt unable to stop it. My breathing became short as I began to feel that I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. I didn’t know what was happening and couldn’t find the words to communicate it. My brother went to get my mum, and my mum held me until I calmed down and my breathing regulated itself again. It wasn’t until much later that I realised I had experienced my first panic attack.
Panic attacks are an intense response to fear and can be scary for the person going through one. Everyone who has ever experienced a panic attack experiences them differently, but symptoms can include:
- a sense of impending doom or danger
- intense panic or fear
- a racing heartbeat
- hyperventilation and feeling unable to breathe properly
- being tearful
- nausea and vomiting
- chest pain (which can feel similar to a heart attack)
- feeling light-headed and dizzy
- trembling and sweating
- feeling hot or cold
But it’s important to know that this is not an exhaustive list of things a person may experience during a panic attack, and they’re more common than you probably realise. A person having a panic attack might experience the physical symptoms but not necessarily be aware that they are having a panic attack at all until after it’s over.
While the causes of panic attacks might be psychological, the body responds according to fight or flight instincts, making it very difficult to think your way out of a panic attack. Instead, it is usually more effective to combat the physical symptoms or to familiarise yourself and practice grounding techniques.
Panic attacks can be terrifying and confusing, and they can happen to anyone – whether they have an anxiety or panic disorder, or other mental health condition, or no diagnosis at all. Panic attacks can also be scary for those who witness someone experiencing one and don’t know how to help. Having someone who knows how to support a sufferer through a panic attack can make a huge difference.
Here are some things you can do to help someone through a panic attack:
Recognise the symptoms
Make yourself aware of what a panic attack can look like so you can recognise when someone might be experiencing one. While not all panic attacks will have obvious physical symptoms, most of the time there are indicators. If a person close to you experiences panic attacks regularly, try to make yourself familiar with their individual symptoms.
Talk to them
If someone is struggling to control their breathing, it can become a cycle that is hard to break during a panic attack: your breathing becomes shallow, then you feel as though you aren’t taking enough air in, which increases the panic, which increases your shortness of breath – and the person becomes focused on attempting to correct their breathing, which is something they’re actually able to do naturally and without thinking, though it doesn’t feel that way during a panic attack. Distracting them is one way that might bring them out of that cycle. Something as simple as talking to them about a subject they’re interested in, even if they aren’t able to reply, can be helpful.
Make them comfortable
Panic attacks can be embarrassing to experience, without having the entire office or five of your friends come over to ask what’s wrong and all of them try to help. Try to be discrete when supporting someone through a panic attack. While the whole office and all of your friends might have the best intentions, one person is enough. Let them have the privacy they need with the support of a person they’re comfortable with. Let them leave whatever space or situation they are currently in if they need to. After they have come out of the panic attack, reassure them that it’s okay and try not to dwell on it with them too much. If they don’t want to talk about it, instead try to talk about something positive and sit with them if they would like you to until they’re calm and comfortable.
When experiencing a panic attack, it’s difficult to rationalise the fear that you’re feeling. Often there is no specific thing the person is panicking about or afraid of, which can be scary in itself. Reassure them that they are safe and you’re going to stay with them. Be patient and speak calmly.
Ask them how you can help
No two people have exactly the same panic attack, and no two people find exactly the same things helpful in managing a panic attack. The best thing you can do to find out how to support someone is to ask them at a time when they’re calm and able to reflect. Some sufferers might find focusing on their breathing helpful, others might benefit from grounding techniques. Some people who experience regular panic attacks as part of an anxiety or panic disorder might have medication that helps them to manage them. Everyone is different.
Click here for information on understanding panic attacks from NHS Choices.