Nature of panic attacks.
Panic attacks are characterised by an extreme fear response even if there is no direct threat presented. Attacks can vary significantly from person to person; as far as possible, talk to your loved one about how best you can support them according to their specific situation.
For someone experiencing a panic attack, sensations may include a feeling of dread, choking, a fast heartbeat, shaking, dizziness, and hyperventilation. The feeling can be overwhelming and feel as if it is dangerous to the person experiencing the attack, but it is important to try to remember that the panic attack itself isn’t dangerous.
Pay attention to the sensation the person is feeling, and try to be empathetic; though this may be something which occurs frequently, each panic attack can feel as distressing as the one before. Try to not discount what they are feeling, avoid phrases such as ‘At least’.
Panic attacks are typically 5-10 minutes long, but for the person experiencing it they may not have a secure concept of time.
How to behave.
As far as possible, speak in a slow, relaxed tone. This will help provide a background sensation of calm. If possible, model deep breathing and encourage the person to do the same if this is something which has been helpful for them in the past.
The way the person is behaving may be stressful to you, but try to remember that the panic attack itself isn’t dangerous.
Depending on the person’s preferences, they may prefer to move to a quiet place where there is less background noise, or visual stimulation. As symptoms may involve nausea and dizziness, they may wish to stay still in one place, sitting on the floor or on a chair.
What to say.
You may want to ask ‘How can I help?’ but remember that the person experiencing the attack might find it hard to communicate.
Instead, you can try providing reassuring support; ‘I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay with you until this is over.’ The person experiencing the attack may not be able to listen to what you are saying properly.
Reassure them that the panic attack is not dangerous in itself - it can be hard for someone experiencing the episode to ‘rationalise’ that they are not in a dangerous situation.
Once it is over.
The person you are with may feel exhausted and wish to take a break, alone or with you. Check in with them and be mindful of their own preferences.
Sometimes people who have experienced a panic attack may feel ashamed of how their symptoms have presented themselves, due to internalised stigma (particularly if the episode occurred in a public place). Reassure them that the attack isn’t something they were able to control and mention they were brave to be able to handle it the way they did.
If you are regularly around the person, consider asking them how they can help in future, as individuals can have differing experiences of panic attacks.
How therapy can help someone experiencing panic attacks.
Therapy can help make gradual progress to understand triggers, thoughts and emotions surrounding panic disorder. The therapist can help understand the roots of issues, which for some people can be related to traumatic events. The therapist is there for support at a regular time each week, and draws on clinical experience to help provide a professional perspective.
The impact therapy can have is long-lasting and can help develop the tools necessary to manage the condition independently in day-to-day contexts and build resilience.
Elsa Minns, Fernwood Clinic Team
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