The worst thing about panic attacks is that they don't make sense.
Unfortunately, this means that many people have no clue how to handle them when they appear in their lives. Telling someone experiencing a panic attack to "calm down," "relax," "get over it," or "just breathe," is not only unhelpful, but incredibly degrading and upsetting.
For most of my life I have lived with an anxiety disorder. Sometimes it's worse than others. Recently I've had a series of public panic attacks. My attacks typically cause me to become mostly nonverbal, either because I can't breathe or because I just can't verbalize what is happening for me.
As such, it is often hard to communicate what I need to the people around me. And frequently, people aren't sure what can be helpful. This said, no one is ever under any obligation to deal with someone else's panic attack. But if you are looking to reach out to a friend in need, I have compiled this little first aid list.
DISCLAIMER: Every person's anxiety is different. Different people need different things. When in doubt, ask the person what they need. Some people need space. Some people need comfort. Some people need water. It's as individual as a fingerprint.
1. Let Me Be In Control
I know this sounds ridiculous, considering that I just told you that I can't communicate well, but taking the control out of my hands can actually make a panic attack worse. I need support, but I also need to know that this is something I can survive even on my own.
2. Help Me Ground Myself Physically
Ask if you can hug me, hold my hand, etc. Asking lets me feel like I have a choice, which can take the bite out of my panic. Hugging compresses the central nervous system and helps calm anxiety. That said, there are times when my anxiety is such that touch will make it worse. Ask or warn me before you touch me. Sitting on the floor can help me ground myself. Alternately, walking somewhere away from where the attack started can help. Very cold things (ice packs, frozen corn, etc.) can also be grounding. Ask me what the room smells like, how many colors I can name, to list as many animals as I can, to count cracks on the wall...anything that helps me focus on the world I am in and get out of my own head.
"The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting to know I had fallen and could fall no farther." - Sylvia Plath
3. Help Me Breathe
Panic attacks usually knock the wind out of me. Counting in fours, reminding me to breathe all the way into my ribs, and/or demonstrating full breaths usually helps me get back in control of my mind and body. Putting a hand on my back can also be helpful.
4. In Extreme Cases, Ask If There's Anyone You Can Call
Sometimes a panic attack is more than just a panic attack. If I'm not calming down at all or responding to anything you're saying, ask if there's someone you can call for me. If a trigger is severe I may need to talk to a close friend, mentor, or my therapist.
5. Check In On Me
The hours following an episode of anxiety or panic can be exhausting and draining. Checking in on me can make it feel a little less lonely and a little less dark. Memes are always appreciated. And texts always help me remember that I am not alone. Remind me that I have people rooting for me and that there is more to me than my mental illness.
For more information on anxiety disorders, visit https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-dis...
For an inside look at a panic attack, read this https://www.theodysseyonline.com/panic-attacks-fee...