What should you do if someone you love has a panic attack? Kat Naish shares her top tips to help a loved one combat the physical and emotional symptoms.
My husband for has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and I interviewed him for this article. 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 began to calm down.
Today, depression is still very much a part of our lives, but the panic attacks are under control. This is mainly down to all my husband's work and some valuable lessons I learned along the way.
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 much 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 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, and the terrifying view. You are about to jump. Your heart is racing, you might feel sick, or you can't breathe. You are dealing with everything that is going on.
"Now imagine your boss tapping you on the shoulder as this goes on, asking you for the total sales in Week 20 this year. Can you even understand this question? Let alone answer?"
During a panic attack, a lot of stuff is happening in your loved one's head. They might be unable to answer questions or hold conversations because they are dealing with an extremely scary situation. This is on top of all the physical symptoms that their body will be throwing at them.
The symptoms are genuine. 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 car park, which seemed just about close enough for him to feel safe.
How you can help
The most important thing you can do to help during an acute panic attack is to ensure your loved one feels safe. Let them feel your presence. If a hug is too much for them to tolerate or you can't hug them because of the current circumstances, be there with them.
Panic attacks can indicate a heap of other anxiety-related issues and are only the tip of the iceberg. In our experience, if my husband experiences severe panic attacks, its means he is also experiencing near-constant anxiety. If your loved one has panic attacks, they are likely living in fear every day. 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 cope:
Often places are triggers. A big supermarket or a hospital, for example. When faced with these, have their back. If they're scared of others seeing them, discreetly let them know you're there for them. Use words to reassure them and remind them the appointment 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 you are looking forward to going on.