How to Help Someone Who Is Having a Panic Attack
A panic attack is a sudden episode of terror, fear or apprehension without the presence of actual danger. It brings with it physical symptoms including a racing heart, rapid breathing, chest pain, shaking and sweating.
Panic attacks can often make you feel like you’re having a heart attack or a stroke. Some people become so afraid of having one of these panic attacks, they develop a panic disorder, a type of anxiety that can be disabling if left untreated.
Estimates on the pervasiveness of panics attacks vary widely. Various studies have indicated that anywhere from 3% to 11% of Americans experience a panic attack every year, and up to 28% will experience one at some point in their lives. Some of those attacks will evolve into a panic disorder.
For those with this disorder, not knowing why these attacks are occurring, or when the next attack might strike, can be particularly mind-boggling. One can feel helpless and at the mercy of this peculiar form or anxiety.
Fortunately, treatments and medications are available for managing panic attacks. However, because they can happen out of the blue, you could find yourself with someone experiencing this frightening, “hyperarousal” state of panic. Knowing how to react can help calm the situation.
The Panic Attack Counterattack
Perhaps the most important thing to know is that people typically don’t die from a panic attack. That said, there are cases in which you might not be able to tell the difference between the symptoms of a panic attack and another condition, such as a heart attack. In those situations when you think it’s more than a panic attack, especially when nausea and vomiting are part of the equation, seeking immediate medical attention is the best choice.
Panic attacks begin suddenly, reach peak intensity in about 10 minutes, and typically go away within 30 minutes. But those minutes can be excruciating for both the person having the attack and those witnessing it.
The reasons why a person has panic attacks are varied Some scientists believe those who experience them misinterpret signals from the environment or various bodily sensations as harmful. This misinterpretation sends the emotional system into a tizzy, which results in an array of symptoms. Additionally, having catastrophic thoughts—thinking in terms of worst-case-scenarios—can make a person believe the situation is more threatening than reality, leading us to feel extreme anxiety or even terror. The fear is then manifested in the body as a panic attack.
Certain risk factors have been identified with panic attacks, including having depression or some other mood disorder, being female or younger than 60, and experiencing a stressful life event. Though not scientifically proven, enduring two years of a pandemic may be a risk factor that could be causing an uptick in panic attacks.
If a loved one or friend feels a panic attack coming on, certain strategies and methods can alleviate the situation. To help, experts say you should:
- Stick around and stay calm.
- Try to ascertain the cause of the panic and, if possible, help remove the person from the situation.
- Ask the person having the attack to take slow, deep breath breaths and to picture themselves in a calm, safe place.
- Do your best to be supportive and nonjudgmental.
- Distract them through other senses. For example, place a piece of ice in their hand for a few seconds. The sensation of the ice will help distract them from thoughts which may be increasing the intensity of the panic attack.
- Offer a coping statement, such as “This will pass in a few minutes.”
- Encourage them to stretch or to tense and release their shoulders. As the body relaxes the mind relaxes.
Panic attacks are frightening for everyone involved. If they happen on a continuing basis, it could mean the problem has morphed into panic disorder. Statistics from the Anxiety Association of America show that panic disorder affects about 6 million adults in the United States, or 2.7% of the population.
Someone experiencing repeated panic attacks should be encouraged to tell a healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Common therapies for panic attacks include cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness training and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
If symptoms are severe, a medical provider might recommend anti-anxiety medication, which can help by lessening the physical sensations and emotional reactions experienced during a panic attack.
Learn more about licensed clinical psychologist Suzana Flores, PsyD