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How to Help a Loved One Through a Panic Attack

Reading time | 4 mins

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 or if you are unable to hug them because of the current circumstances, just be there with 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:

Reassure them

Often places are triggers. A big supermarket or a hospital, for example. When faced with these, have their back. Let them know discreetly if they are scared of others seeing. 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 that you are looking forward to taking.

Seek professional help

I cannot emphasise this enough. Dealing with anxiety can sometimes feel too difficult to battle alone and sometimes requires professional help. You can seek help telephonically or online, rather than in person. A phone or virtual conversation with a GP might lead your loved one to consider one of the following options:  

  • Counselling could be a good way for your loved one to deal with underlying anxiety symptoms. It will also give them an opportunity to talk about their feelings with a trained therapist who will listen and support them without judgement. These services can also be accessed via phone or Skype if they need to get support during this difficult period.
  • CBT (also known as Cognitive behavioural therapy) can help form new patterns of thinking and give coping mechanisms for when someone is experiencing a panic attack. My husband now regularly uses these techniques to help overcome his symptoms.
  • Medication might be another treatment option depending on your doctor’s recommendations.

The takeaway

I think we got through the hard times with a combination of things. For my husband, it was important for him to acknowledge that he was not weak, but actually sick. Once we opened up to friends and family, he realised that he was not alone and that many others had similar experiences to share.

Of course my husband still has moments of anxiety and periods of time where he feels very down. The major difference nowadays is that he feels way more comfortable to talk about it and has the coping strategies to manage it.

UK/MED/20/0086 March 2020