There is an important number of people that suffer from different forms of mental illness, and anxiety disorders are one of the most common issues, and understanding how anxiety works is very important if you want to know how to help someone having a panic attack.
How Anxiety Works and Panic Attacks are triggered
Anxiety is a natural response that everybody has. This natural response is a form of self-defense mechanism that is meant to protect us from threats. This self-defense mechanism is called the fight or flight response, that is triggered when we feel any sort of threat. This response was crucial for survival many years ago when there were threats like for example, tigers. The fight or flight response helps by focusing the blood flow and energy into the parts of the body that are key for survival, leaving everything else on hold. This allows us to be more alert, react faster, and run faster.
This makes a lot of sense when there is a threat like a tiger, however, what happens when we are anxious because there is a tight deadline at work? Or maybe we have to do a public speaking presentation in front of a lot of people?
The problem now is that during these kinds of situations our fight or flight response reacts the same way as it did before when the threat was a tiger. When we are anxious and have fear we don’t know how to differentiate one kind of threat from the other, so the fight or flight response is activated either way. As you can see, this self-defense mechanism is not very useful for this kind of situation since there is no real threat, and there is nothing to fight or run away.
Everybody goes through this process, however, the big issue with the people who suffer from an anxiety disorder, for example, someone with frequent panic attacks, is that they are overly sensitive to the sensations or feelings related to anxiety. This happens because during these moments of anxiety they start to worry about these sensations and think that there might be something wrong with them, or just try to fight against the anxiety because they don’t want to feel anxious which makes them feel worse. This causes them to start fearing these sensations, so they start feeling more anxious because of this, so the more they worry, the more anxious they get. It’s an ongoing vicious circle that is what causes, especially for people with intense anxiety or that are overly sensitive, the anxiety to keep rising until it triggers into a full-blown panic attack.
The worst part of this is that a lot of people who suffers a first panic attack, can start having an extreme fear of this happening again, so what happens is that people tend to avoid the situation that triggered their first panic attack, and slowly it starts getting worse, avoiding more kind of situations, and being extremely self-conscious of how they are feeling, worry about their mental health, and thinking that they may have recurrent panic attacks.
This is tough, because there is a lot of tension and stress going on, and the fight or flight response gives those extra doses of energy, so if there is no real threat, and you can’t fight or run, people then accumulates that energy and it also makes the sensations to feel worse. And in the end, what people fear the most is not the situation itself they are in, is the extreme fear of feeling like that again, of having another anxiety or panic attack, so it’s the fear of the fear what makes this so tough, especially since there is no real threat, so you are fighting against those unwanted thoughts in your mind.
It’s very hard to explain how is an anxiety or panic attack to someone who hasn’t been through one, however, understanding the context and the panic symptoms of it might help to understand everything much better, and why it is so difficult for people to get out of it, or why they act the way they do.
A list of the most common panic symptoms:
- Fast heart rate or heart palpitations
- Rapid breathing
- Tingling in hands and feet and other parts of the body
- Dizziness and light headed
- Trouble breathing
How to help someone having a Panic attack?
What To Do:
Always remember that no matter how bad a panic attack is, is just anxiety, nothing else, so as soon as the panic attack stops the other person will start to feel better and calm, and a panic attack always stops, even if someone doesn’t do anything it will stop at some point.
Another important consideration is that each person is different, so what could help someone to feel more relaxed, another person might make it feel uncomfortable and more anxious, so very important to consider this.
– Make sure to stay calm. If the other person doesn’t see you are calm and you start to look worried, that would probably make them feel more anxious and uncomfortable.
– Ask them if they want to sit down, or go to a particular place or stay where they are. A lot may depend on where you are, but if you are for example in a shopping mall, maybe the person would feel better if you go to a place with fewer people and sit down, or maybe they would like to go directly to the car.
– Tell them to take all the time they need, there is absolutely no rush at all. This is important, because if they feel for any reason that they must calm fast, then that will make them even more anxious probably. Knowing they have all the time they need helps to avoid getting more worried.
– Remember them that there is nothing to be afraid of, it’s just an anxiety rush, it will pass and that it just needs to give it some time. You know the sensations are uncomfortable, but that they are completely normal, so there is nothing to worry about, and that they are safe. This is possible it can help because sometimes they might be getting more anxious thinking there might be something wrong with them, so knowing they will be safe can be helpful.
– After reassuring them ask if they want to be alone for a while, or if they want the company, or if there is anything else they would like just ask. Depending on the situation they might prefer one or the other, or maybe they will want something to drink.
– Once you let them know that there is no rush and that you know this will pass and that there is no danger, you can try talking to them about anything so they can take their mind off it. Any trivial thing is fine. Ideally, something they like, or you can even try to make a joke. The idea is to lighten the mood.
– Then just wait and see how the person reacts and just be patient until they tell you they are ok to move on.
What Not to Do:
– Don’t touch them or hug them without permission. This may cause them to feel more uncomfortable. It’s better to ask first if you think it might help since this will depend on the person.
– Don’t rush them. Let them be and give them time. Under no circumstance rush them. This can cause them more stress.
– Don’t suggest going to the hospital. An anxiety attack or panic attack may look bad but is just anxiety, and it would be very rare the real need to go. Unless the person asks you directly they want to go.
– Never question them about this. Most times they don’t have any idea why the panic attacks started, so just be cool with the situation and don’t make them feel guilty about this. This is important because maybe you have a partner who suffers from anxiety, and you planned a fun activity and they just felt really bad and had to go back home because of it and made you feel kind of mad you couldn’t have a good time together. This kind of situation might happen, so bringing it up in any circumstance could cause a lot of damage, so be careful!
Panic attacks are really tough for people who suffer constantly because it takes a lot out of them physically and emotionally. Living in constant anxiety or intense fear is what makes this mental disorder so tough, especially because people are fighting with themselves and their own mind who subconsciously thinks there is a threat, even if their rational mind knows there is nothing to worry about. So the way to be able to get better is to constantly facing the intense fear until gradually the subconscious mind understands that there is no real danger.
The side effects of this is that a panic attack sufferer might feel alone, ashamed, weak, with very low self-esteem, and with a lot of uncertainty about the future.
Understanding this is important so you can better help someone having a panic attack. The more you understand how it works, the better you can help someone because no matter what they say or how they react, you can explain and tell them that they will be alright with confidence and calmness, reminding them that this is just their own body wanting to protect them and that the sensations as uncomfortable they might be, are completely normal and just part of the fight or flight response so it will pass.