How To Help A Friend Through A Panic Attack
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Health and Wellness

How To Help A Friend Through A Panic Attack

End the stigma surrounding panic disorders and mental health.

How To Help A Friend Through A Panic Attack

I woke up with panic attacks every day for two weeks straight.

Every. Single. Day.

Imagine this: you're in bed, nice and warm and comfortable. Your blankets are soft against your skin, and your pillow is just fluffy enough to feel like a cloud. You're in a dream-like euphoria, sleeping soundly.

And then you can't breathe.

But it's not just that you can't breathe. You feel your heart beating hard and fast, threatening to burst through your chest. Your whole body tenses up, those soft blankets feel like sandpaper and your fluffy pillow feels like a cement prison. You might shake a little-- or a lot, depending on the day. You haven't opened your eyes yet, but you can feel the world closing in on you, whirling just as your thoughts are. Your breath gets fast and shallow. Sometimes you're afraid you'll pass out. Sometimes you force yourself back to sleep-- calming yourself just long enough to become unconscious again. Sometimes you sit bolt upright in a pool of your own sweat-- and sometimes tears.

Being jolted into consciousness like this is draining. Every morning I experience it, I wake up more tired than I was when I fell asleep. And, often times when I wake up like this, this overwhelmingly panicked feeling follows me throughout the day.

Panic attacks are, unfortunately, not a taboo subject for many people. According to the ADAA, 6.8 million American adults are diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and 6 million adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with a Panic Disorder. While the two of those statistics combined only makes up approximately 6% of the U.S. population, that's still more than 12 million diagnoses that are reported. Many others-- myself included-- have not pursued counseling or therapy and are therefore not included in these stats.

Since panic attacks are so common, there is a lot of information floating around on the internet giving tips on dealing with them in yourself and loved ones. Panic attacks can be different for everyone-- they come in all different forms, from sensory overload to hyperventilation and a ton of others in between. Panic attacks can even be different for individuals, varying from attack to attack. I've had the typical hyperventilating, room closing in attacks more often than not, but I've also experienced a sensory overload panic attack before, and an attack where my entire body becomes fatigued-- almost as if it's shutting down from all the stress I've put it under.

One internet meme I stumbled across was a text-post from Tumblr, titled "How to: Calm Someone While They're Having a Panic Attack." It detailed a short, three-step process to calm a friend while they panicked. Naturally, I was interested. I read on. I stopped after the first step.

The first step read: "Wrap your arms tightly around them, kind of like a hug. It triggers a hormone in the brain and calms them. (NOTE: They may resist, but they will relax into your arms at some point."

No. No, no no no. No. Do not do this for someone unless they have explicitly told you it will calm them. For some people-- myself included-- this will make them more panicked. If someone touches me when I'm struggling to pump air into my own lungs, I feel constricted, claustrophobic, and I panic more. I will relax into your arms once I have managed to black out. I do not want to black out. I need space, I do not need a bear hug. I do not want a bear hug.

Do. Not. Touch. Me.

This method may work for some people-- but don't try it unless they've told you for sure that it does. Some people may lash out violently during a panic attack; they may start swinging at you, putting both yourself and them at risk. Just trust me-- don't do it unless you've got permission.

Another method that I've used-- and had used on me-- several times in the past is to get the panicked person to sit down or lean against a supporting structure, like a wall, and to have them close their eyes. Then, in a calm and soothing voice, you softly describe a beach to them. Describe the warm sun beating down on their skin, the grainy feel of the sand beneath their feet, and the crash of the waves in the distance. Tell them to time their breath with the waves, and then guide them in doing so-- "In... and out..."-- guide them through this until their breathing has steadied enough, and they are able to open their eyes.

As I said, I've both used this method on others and had it used on me. For me, this is what works best. You cannot force me to relax-- as that Tumblr post seems to imply-- but by making me stop for a minute and painting the scene for me, you are giving me the chance to center myself. When things feel out of my control, I panic (I panic a lot, in case you haven't noticed). When you give me the tools I need to make the choice to slow down for a minute, I am truly able to relax and pull myself out of the attack. It's all about how you approach it.

Just as no two people will experience panic attacks exactly the same way, no method will work for two people in the exact same way. If you know your friend struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, talk to them. Find out what works best for them, and do your best to give them the support they need. On the flip side, if you struggle with panic attacks, talk to the people you care about. Let them know how your panic attacks manifest so they can see the warning signs. Let them know how you want it to be handled.

Panic attacks are a common phenomenon, and yet they are often swept under the rug or chalked up to hysteria. Be as open as you need or want to be, and seek help when you feel you need it. End the stigma surrounding mental health.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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