It feels like your chest is being vacuumed from the inside, your stomach is turning and you just want to run away from wherever you are. Anxiety attacks are the worst part of having anxiety, and they are no joke. It is physically and mentally taxing on my body, and one of the things about myself that I try to hide the most. Even though I intentionally hide it, I find myself wishing people were able to understand what I needed in my most anxious moments. But obviously, if anxiety isn't something that you have experienced, you may not know what your anxious friend/significant other/family member needs from you. Attacks aside, anxiety is a hard thing to live with, everyday seems to bring a new challenge.
I have compiled a list of do's and don'ts for those who want to help, but don’t know how.
Do know the signs of an anxiety attack
Is the person getting suddenly jittery or speaking more quickly? Avoiding eye contact? Tensing up? Someone once told me they knew I was having an anxiety attack because I couldn’t stop pacing. Try to understand what anxiety looks like for the person you care for, so that you can identify it when it happens.
Don’t assume that they are anxious about something specific.
So many times I have been asked (begged, even) to tell someone what was wrong. They wanted an explanation of why I was anxious or what caused my anxiety. The thing is I don’t know what’s wrong. If I did know, I could fix it or avoid it. No matter how many times you say, “just tell me what’s wrong”, there may not be an answer. Understand that we are not intentionally keeping the reason a secret, we really just don’t know.
Do ask ahead of time what helps if an anxiety attack strikes.
As I mentioned, I tend to pace. Others describe a paralysis feeling and needing to lie down. Things that help me most are activities that require my brain and body to do, like doing math problems while walking. Others may be comforted by lying down and doing breathing exercises. Knowing what works best is important so that you can start right away.
Don’t tell the person to get over it.
As much of an advocate as I am for the phrase, “Eh, you’ll live,” anxious feelings are not something to toss by the wayside. If anything, downplaying what someone is feeling is a catalyst for anxiety. The physical feelings of a panic attack are totally real, and it does sound like we are being dramatic (I’ll admit it) but the fear is so genuine, please take it seriously.
Do remind the person that they are strong.
Remind the person that they can (and have many times) overcome anxious feelings. The feelings are temporary, and it’s important to reiterate this. Celebrate small victories! Even something like making it through a concert (if crowds are a trigger) without having to leave is an accomplishment.
Don’t force them to do anything.
Many times, people have tried to force me out of my anxiety. When I was in middle school, it was being forced to stay in class by my teachers despite the fact that I was hyperventilating. If anything, that increased the anxiety by triple the amount I already had. Forcing someone to stay in a crowd, travel on a plane or whatever it is they struggle with sucks. Not only are we still going to be scared, we’re going to feel like we’ve let you down, too.