Panic attacks come on quickly and without warning. Someone may be out with a friend when suddenly, they begin to shake, experience shortness of breath or have difficulty communicating.
Panic attacks are very distressing for the person experiencing them, but they can also be upsetting for those watching. Knowing how to help someone having a panic attack can ensure that the individual’s good intentions don’t cause further distress.
Recognizing a Panic Attack
A panic attack is an abrupt and oftentimes unexpected episode of intense dread or fear. Unlike anxiety attacks, which generally have a clear cause, panic attacks occur without a trigger. Whether it is the individual’s first panic attack or they experience attacks regularly, the experience can be frightening, embarrassing and exhausting.
Panic attacks can strike at any time without warning. Their duration and symptoms vary from one person to another, but common symptoms include:
- Feeling detached from reality
- Tingling sensations or numbness
- Dizziness or faintness
- Chest pain
- Hot flashes
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in chest or throat
- Shaking or trembling
- Rapid heartbeat
- Fear of losing control
- A sense of danger or impending doom
Every year, about one in 10 people experience a panic attack. The symptoms an individual experiences varies and can make it hard to recognize when someone is in the middle of an attack. However, there are a few common signs to watch for.
They May Become Disconnected
When someone’s experiencing a panic attack, it can be difficult for them to communicate with those around them. Their focus is likely on the symptoms they’re experiencing and how they can control them.
They Appear Flushed or Flustered
Panic attacks may cause the individual to feel very warm. When someone is experiencing one, their face may become flushed or they may begin to sweat.
Their Breathing Patterns May Change
Panic attacks trigger a fight-or-flight response and can cause shortness of breath or chest pain. Changes in breathing patterns, including repeatedly yawning, can signal a panic attack.
They May Shake or Shiver
Panic attacks cause adrenaline surges, which may result in shaking. While some people feel hot in the middle of an attack, others feel cold, which can cause shivering.
What to Avoid When a Spouse Has a Panic Attack
Knowing how to talk to someone having a panic attack can help to deescalate intense feelings. For those whose spouse has a panic disorder, it can be challenging to know what to say. While each person can come up with their own ways to recenter themselves and regain control during an attack, having their partner’s support can also be helpful.
While different people find comfort in different strategies for managing panic attacks, there are a handful of things that are never helpful.
“Just Calm Down”
Telling someone to calm down makes the assumption that they’re in control over what’s happening to them. Unfortunately, in the midst of a panic attack, this isn’t the case. If the individual had the ability to simply calm themselves and put a stop to the attack, they would. Suggesting that they calm themselves can heighten feelings of stress and helplessness.
“There’s No Reason to Feel Anxious”
Because panic attacks usually don’t have a clear trigger or cause, the person experiencing it likely knows that their safety isn’t being threatened.
“This Is Embarrassing”
Having a panic attack, particularly in a public space, can feel embarrassing. Attempting to shame the person into stopping is unhelpful. Instead, an individual can affirm their spouse’s strength and let them know that they’re there to provide support. Phrases such as “I’m here for you,” and “You’re going to get through this,” can go a long way in helping the individual feel more confident at a vulnerable time.
Panic attacks bring on powerful emotions and sensations that are outside of the individual’s control. A panic attack isn’t something the spouse is doing, it’s something that’s happening to them. The individual likely knows that the symptoms they’re displaying aren’t appropriate for the situation they’re in. Telling them they’re overreacting may make it even more difficult to regain control.
Instead, it may be helpful for someone to guide their spouse to a quieter area with fewer distractions and fewer people.
How to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack
When someone is in the middle of a panic attack, they are likely finding it difficult to think clearly. While not everyone experiences panic attacks in the same way, there are a few things that may help them through it.
1. Validate the Distress
When someone is witnessing their spouse, family member or friend having a panic attack, their immediate response may be to try to put an end to it. Unfortunately, the person experiencing the attack isn’t in control of it, and behaving as though they were places additional stress on them. Knowing how to talk to someone having a panic attack can help de-escalate the situation.
Rather than pointing out that their attack is unjustified, acknowledge and validate the experience. An empathetic response can be as simple as, “What you’re experiencing right now is really stressful. Can I help you go somewhere quieter?” It may also be helpful to remind the individual that the feelings they’re experiencing are temporary and will end soon.
2. Help the Individual Stay Grounded
Once a panic attack has begun, grounding exercises can be very helpful in bringing the individual back to a place where they’re in control. Grounding exercises take the focus off the attack itself by helping the person connect with their environment.
Among the best strategies for handling a panic attack is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. To utilize this technique, guide the individual in finding:
- Five things they can see around them, such as a piece of artwork, and think or talk about what they like or don’t like about it
- Four things they can feel, such as how the sun feels on their skin or the surface of the furniture they’re sitting on
- Three things they can hear
- Two things they can smell
- One thing they can taste
3. Respect Their Needs
Some people appreciate help during the attack. Others prefer to be left alone until it’s over and they’ve recovered physically and emotionally. The experience can be exhausting, and they may need to cancel plans.
Planning for the Future
It can be scary to watch someone experience a panic attack. However, it’s important to remember that the person isn’t in immediate danger. The best thing their friend or spouse can do is to remain calm and supportive.
For someone with a spouse or close friend who regularly experiences panic attacks, it may be a good idea to talk to the individual about how they want to be supported. For some, physical touch and being talked to during the attack can be a tremendous comfort. For others, heightened senses can make direct contact feel overwhelming. Rather than making assumptions about what the person needs, it’s best to have a conversation.
In some cases, those who have regular panic attacks benefit from professional help. Panic attacks are treatable, usually through a combination of therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and medication. Seeking professional help can also resolve issues that often co-occur with panic attacks such as substance abuse.
FHE Health provides comprehensive treatment for panic attacks and panic disorders and can help individuals learn to manage their symptoms. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment programs.