HELPING SOMEONE EXPERIENCING A PANIC ATTACK.
The best way to describe a panic attack is that you feel like you’re dying.
A lot of people say that and you might think they’re exaggerating but they’re really not. Before I get into this, I just want to make it very clear that everyone is different. People need different things when they’re in distress and I’m not trying to say this is the be all end all answer to a panic attack. Take what I say and use it - but remember the person in front of you is their own person.
When someone has a panic attack it can be triggered by anything or nothing, so don’t question them as to why it has happened because unless it is very clear and you can remove them from that situation, it might just not be something they can put into words. If there is a clear cause (e.g. a certain person or object), then if possible remove them from it as it can be very triggering. Do not make a big deal of it to others around you as panic attacks have a lot of stigma around them; the last thing you need is some judgmental person making the victim more upset than they already are.
Once you’re with the person try not to underestimate what they’re asking for or doing. If they’re holding onto you, that probably means they need that physical contact of a hug or for you to say it will be okay. If they are not touching you and flinch when you do, this is often a sign to not touch and instead sit with them. If they truthfully want to be alone and you don’t think they’re a danger to themselves then make sure they know you will be there for them when they want but give them that space.
A mixture of breathing exercises and distraction is usually the best route. Use the 478 technique which means they must breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 and breathe out for 8. Tell them stories and good positive things so they can replace whatever they’re feeling which - trust me - feels like drowning. Remember you are not a doctor or a psychologist, you are their friend! Do not try to treat them or analyse them. Just let them know that they have the support they want and need.
When the panic attack is over - and remember this could take 5 minutes or it could take an hour, it really depends on the person - this is once again a moment where you respect the wishes of the person who’s been going through this. As long as you think they are safe, go with what they ask, whether this is to leave them be or stay with them or perhaps just go out for a coffee. They know themselves and you are there to help them make the best choice for them, not to force it.
And to the person who is having the panic attack. I have been there and I know it hurts. I know you feel weak, you’re hurting and you honestly feel like you’re dying. But you will be okay. Breathe slowly, think of what makes you happy and know in the future there is a time when this will be over. Just breathe.
"I'm a Psychology student at the University of Reading. I've suffered from depression, anxiety and panic attacks since I was 15, and currently I work as a support worker to children with autism and cerebral palsy."
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