For this article I have interviewed my husband who has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. He started experiencing regular panic attacks about nine years ago which affected us both. We battled on and off for at least three years before things started to calm down.
Today, depression is still very much a part of our lives but the panic attacks are under control. This is largely due to a large amount of work done by him and some valuable lessons that I had learned.
I want to share what we both learned during this journey to help you support a loved one through a panic attack and the anxiety that comes with it.
Understanding a panic attack
In our experience there is not actually a whole lot that another person can do when somebody is in the midst of a full-blown panic attack. A long time ago, when I was trying to understand what my husband was going through, I read a metaphor that helped me a lot:
“Imagine you are sitting at the open door of a small aircraft, about one thousand metres in the sky. Picture the scene with all the noise, the force of the wind, the terrifying view. You are about to jump. Your heart is racing, you might feel sick, or that you can't breathe. You are dealing with everything that is going on. Now imagine your boss tapping your shoulder, asking you for the total sales in week 20 of this year. Can you even understand this question? Let alone answer?”
During a panic attack a lot of stuff will likely be happening in your loved one's head. They might not be able to answer questions or hold a conversation because they are dealing with a situation that is extremely scary for them. This is on top of all the physical symptoms that their body will be throwing at them.
The symptoms are very real. My husband's panic attacks manifested themselves by affecting his breathing. His breath got so heavy that he physically ached. We spent a few nights in A&E where his observations were clear, yet he struggled for air. We spent many more nights in the hospital carpark, which seemed just about close enough for him to feel safe.
How you can help
In my experience, the single most important thing you can do to help during an acute panic attack is to ensure that your loved one feels safe. Let them feel your presence. If a hug is too much for them to tolerate, just be there next to them.
Panic attacks can indicate a whole heap of other anxiety-related issues and are only really the tip of the iceberg. In our experience, if my husband experiences bad panic attacks, its means he is also experiencing near-constant anxiety. If your loved one is having panic attacks, it’s likely that they are living every day in fear. Often, it is fear of fear itself and the fear of having another attack.
As a couple who have lived with panic attacks, here are our top tips for helping a loved one to cope:
Often places are triggers. A big supermarket, a noisy pub, a busy train. When faced with these, have their back. Let them know discreetly if they are scared of others seeing. Squeeze their hand or remind them the train ride won't take long.
Try to distract them
Talk about things that will help them take their mind off the situation. Ask them questions that take them to another place in their minds. Perhaps remind them of a holiday you took together or one that you are looking forward to taking.