The Internet is replete with articles and stories about sufferers of anxiety or panic disorders. You will also come across numerous ways of dealing with such conditions, though most of them are addressed to the individual undergoing the panic attack. While the one experiencing the tormenting situation is the most vulnerable, often it is also quite challenging to be around such a person. You would want to reach out to your friend or loved one with all that you have, but mostly, it is not of any help, if you do not know how exactly you can make it better for them.
The fundamental thing to keep in mind is, panic or anxiety disorder is not merely the jitters you have a night before a critical examination or the cold feet one might get at the thought of getting hitched! That is nervousness and does not rob you of your power to rationalise. However, anxiety attack comes like a deluge and can be extremely irrational. It gets the better of you even before you realise, and you will be rendered helpless. Panic attacks come out of nowhere and can last anywhere between 5 and 25 minutes, but also the short duration of heightened anxiety can be devastating enough. Often they come and go in a continuous loop until the triggering factor is somehow done away with. However, this also gets quite tricky, since often the person is unable to figure out what has led to the panic attack.
To put things in perspective, let’s say you’re asleep at night when suddenly you are awakened by the sound of someone breaking in. Of course, any normal person would start sweating, accompanied by heavy breathing, racing heartbeat, nausea, a feeling of pressure on your chest, and so on. This is panic.
A panic attack, however, is different since it can just happen spontaneously, without even any stimuli to arouse it. Even without being in a dangerous or scary situation, the body reacts in a manner that completely throws the person off-balance. It is a much graver psychological condition, which can be slightly alleviated by just being with someone the victims feel comfortable with. All that they need is an assurance that everything is going to be alright.
The following are some of the do’s and don’ts, and you can follow if you are around someone having a panic or anxiety attack:
- Remind the person that he/she is not obligated in any way to stay where he/she is: If he is panicking about something, he can simply leave the place that adds to his discomfort. If you can, offer him/her a ride home depending on how alarming the conditions look. However, don’t put any pressure on him.
- Assure the person that there is nothing to be afraid of: Rationalisation needs one to be calm and composed. Under a panic attack, an individual is hardly able to think clearly, let alone being logical. Sad as it is, he/she fails to understand that there is no reason to panic. He should feel safe in your company, and it is your responsibility to convince him that you will help him through this phase.
- Let the victim know that its temporary: While those few minutes of a panic attack can be torturous enough, it is still a tad comforting to know that it is not going to last forever. Remind him that it will soon be gone.
- Encourage him to breathe: In really severe cases of anxiety attacks; the person might even forget to breathe correctly. Tell him to take a deep breath for four seconds, and then exhale for four seconds, and continue this cycle. Breathing should be done in the correct pattern to make a difference.
- Try to have an engaging conversation with such people: If the person concerned is a friend of yours, you are likely to know his/her areas of interest. Casually, try to bring up such topics to distract him. However, make sure you do not overwhelm him with an elaborate conversation. The trick is to touch his/her favourite chords subtly so that the feeling of intense panic subsides.
- Stay with them: The person panicking might ask you to leave, but more often than not, it’s his anxiety talking. A panic attack might worsen if the person is left alone to be further engulfed by his thoughts. It is always advisable to stay with him, no matter what.
- Don’t be fooled by denial: When a person going through an anxiety attack is asked if he is alright, the chances are that he will answer in the affirmative. However, if you can sense something amiss, give due importance to the situation. Don’t be misled by his/her assurance if there are apparent symptoms of a panic attack.
- Don’t tell the person to calm down or relax: In all likelihood; this will worsen the anxiety. As mentioned before, anxiety attacks are quite a serious affair with underlying psychological connotations, so a simple “calm down” or “relax” will do more harm than good!
- Don’t ask why he is panicking: The sufferer usually does not have the mental clarity to ascertain what it is he/she is panicking about. So these people are as clueless as you are.
- Don’t brush it off: Sufferers of panic attacks go through such episodes over and over again, and they have no control over it. Do not presume that just because it is a regular thing with them, they must be accustomed to it. On the contrary, each time such a panic attack strikes, it is equally agonizing for them, even if they have been experiencing it for years. Just drive it into your head- no panic attack is to be ignored.
- Don’t use silly things to distract them: When someone is undergoing a panic attack, it doesn’t help to ask him to look at some random stuff or stare at you for few seconds, or anything like that. And no, they cannot simply close their eyes and picture something sweet and gentle to snap out of it. It never works that way! The person can figure out that you’re trying to distract them, which is rendered completely ineffective.
- Don’t seem irritated or judgmental: No matter how obvious it sounds, it is the most crucial thing. People suffering from anxiety attacks are always scared of inconveniencing people or inviting their judgements. The worst part is, you won’t understand what the problem is, or how traumatising it can be. Even if you are somewhat annoyed, keep your cool and remind yourself that your irritation is nowhere close to the anguish that the sufferer is going through.
If someone is battling anxiety issues or has frequent panic attacks, it helps a great deal to be surrounded by people they are comfortable with. As a friend or a family member, even a compassionate “trust me, it will pass away” will make a world of difference. If you know anyone who suffers from occasional panic attacks, be aware and understand how you can make the situation just about a little less terrifying for him or her.