When I was a teenager, I had no idea that panic attacks existed. It was never something that we covered in health class. If my friends were having them, they certainly didn’t talk about it. The word panic was one we definitely overused when we were feeling even the slightest amount of stress. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I really learned what it meant to panic, and trust me, it’s not a pretty thing. Here’s a quick list of the most common symptoms of a panic attack:
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Feeling detached from your surroundings
- Numbness/tingling in extremities
- Fear of imminent death
Everyone who has panic attacks experiences them a bit differently. Some people may only feel a handful of things on this list, while others feel all of them at once. Some people may only have one panic attack in their lifetime, while others may have them regularly. The really freaky part is that they can be caused by just about anything, from someone’s tone of voice to a specific location. Everyone’s triggers are different. I’ve been on both sides of the situation, and I’ll tell you, watching someone have a panic attack is almost as scary as experiencing one yourself. The best way to combat fear is to educate yourself, so I’ve compiled a list of things you can do if someone near you is having a panic attack.
Take them to a quiet place
First thing’s first: if you’re in a crowd, help them get to a place with a little more privacy. Even if it didn’t directly cause the panic attack, being surrounded on all sides by people will definitely not help them calm down. Also, try to keep well-meaning people from swarming around them. Their intentions will likely be good, but nothing is worse when you’re having a panic attack than knowing that a bunch of people are watching you while you’re having a panic attack.
Get them to sit down
Panic attacks can make a person feel light-headed very quickly. In some cases, they might even notice that their legs have fallen asleep. Getting them off their feet can help prevent injury and make it easier for them to focus on their breathing.
Be a peaceful presence
Try to speak softly, and do not ask them what’s wrong. Everything in their body is on high alert, so you want to keep yourself as calm and neutral as possible. Asking them what’s wrong may only make things worse. Oftentimes, it is difficult for someone who is having a panic attack to speak. Also, they may not know themselves what caused it. Panic attacks are sometimes brought on by specific triggers, but just as often, they are the result of a combination of complex factors that may not be easily understood.
Tell them that everything will be OK
Remind them that what they’re feeling is normal and will pass. The mind goes to an irrational place when someone is having a panic attack. They may be entirely convinced that they’re going to die. Just keep telling them that they’re going to be fine and get them to focus on taking slow, deep breaths to regulate their breathing.
Soothe them with a gentle touch
If they don’t mind being touched, rub their back. Or hold their hand. Anything to help ground them to the moment. Depending on the severity of the attack, the world can feel very far away.
Help them stay hydrated
Once it’s over, if you can, get them some water. Panic attacks can often lead to hyperventilating for several minutes, which means their throat will be really dry. Having something to drink may help them to feel a little bit more normal.
All of these things are based solely on my own experiences, and of those close to me, so it’s by no means the be-all, end-all. The most important thing to remember is that having a panic attack doesn’t make someone weak. It’s as involuntary as a sneeze.