In the United States, anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses and affect more than 40 million people ages 18 and older alone (this is 18.1% of the country's population). Additionally, there are many types of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, phobic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), separation anxiety disorder, and more I am most likely forgetting. Yet, only around 37% of people diagnosed with any of these anxiety disorders receive treatment.
As someone living with GAD, I've had my fair share of anxiety attacks, both in public and privately. Additionally, I've helped others get through their anxiety attacks. From this, I've made a 10-step guide to coach anyone through an anxiety attack. Let it be noted that I am not a medical professional in any way; I'm just a girl that wants to help as many people as possible.
Believe me, I know that helping someone through an anxiety attack is intimidating beyond belief. Hopefully, this guide makes the stressful process just that much easier for you.
1. Educate yourself
I'm not saying you need to write a 50-page research paper on anxiety, but at least educate yourself on the symptoms of anxiety and how to help relieve them/cope with them. Symptoms of anxiety include, but are not limited to:
-feelings of nervousness
-having a sense of impending danger/panic/doom
-increased heart rate
-rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
-derealization (feelings of unreality)
-depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
-fear of losing control
-difficulty controlling worry
-having the urge to avoid anxiety triggers
This is just scratching the surface of anxiety symptoms. The best thing to do is figure out what your person's symptoms are and read up on those symptoms specifically, especially if you don't have much time. If you can somehow understand the symptoms that they're feeling, then it gives you the opportunity to better connect with them and understand them from an empathetic point of view.
2. "Talk to me."
If someone comes to you (or texts you) saying "I think I'm having an anxiety attack" or "I'm feeling really anxious," tell them to talk to you and ask what they're feeling (mentally, physiologically, emotionally, etc.).
3. Try to figure out what may have triggered it.
The sooner you can figure out what may have triggered the attack, the sooner you can help them end it. Triggers can be anything from an event, a sound, a word, a conversation, and more. If you figure out the trigger, help them rationalize their thoughts. Most likely, the trigger sent them down an infinite tightening spiral of thoughts, so do your best to help them slow down. Also, ask why it made them feel that way because it will help them pinpoint the reason behind the trigger themselves rather than you just telling them.
4. Remind them to breathe deeply.
Physiologically, anxiety occurs from the chest (the lungs) up. Asking your person to breathe in deeply and slowly (like breathing into their stomach) forces them to operate beyond the chest. Doing this makes it physically impossible for their heart rate to accelerate, forcing it to slow down and decrease the intensity of the anxiety.
5. Validate their feelings.
Just because someone has an anxiety disorder, that doesn't mean that their feelings and thoughts are bullsh*t. When having an anxiety attack, there's nothing worse than feeling invalid and misunderstood. Like yes, I already know that my thought process is quite corrupt and irrational, but that doesn't take away their validity. So just keep an open mind while they're talking to you, and be as empathetic as you can. If you relate to any of their thoughts, make that known; it helps to normalize them. It will make your person feel much safer, and it will help ease their mind.
6. Once again, help them focus on their breathing
It's really important, guys. Not only that, but it also helps to center their thoughts on one thing rather than like 80 trillion things.
7. Let them know that this is going to pass.
When you tell them this though, make sure you aren't doing it in a way that makes them feel invalid. For example, do not say, "Calm down, this is temporary." Telling them to calm down makes them feel insecure, invalidated, and misunderstood, which is what we don't want them to feel. Instead, say, "I know that you're not okay now, and that's okay. Just know that this moment is going to pass, and when it does, you're going to be okay."
8. Stay by their side, no matter what.
The worst thing you can do is leave your person alone with their thoughts. With you by their side, I can guarantee you that they'll be 80x stronger and safer. Even if they tell you to leave, don't (it's most likely the anxiety talking). You don't have to be talking to them the entire time either; your presence is enough for them.
9. Try engaging in a conversation about something that makes them happy/calm.
Slowly/casually start bringing up a topic that piques their interest. This will lure them away from their feelings of anxiety and capture their interest. Hopefully, you can even score a few laughs and smiles.
10. Make sure they know that you're ALWAYS there for them.
This gives your person a sense of security, trust, and calmness. It reminds them that even if anxiety tells them that they're alone, there's no possible way that they are. Additionally, it will let them know that it's okay to talk about their anxiety; there's no need to be embarrassed by it.