Seven Ways To Help Someone Through A Panic Attack

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Educate yourself

According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), 13.2% of people have experienced a panic attack. If you know someone who suffers from them frequently, it can be helpful to better understand what they are. Attacks can last between five and 30 minutes, with symptoms including rapid breathing, sweating, a racing heart, shivering and feeling sick. The NHS, MHF, the mental health charities MindTime to Change and No Panic have resources available.

Stay calm

“If you’re having a short, sudden panic attack, it can be helpful to have someone with you reassuring you that it will pass,” Paul Salkovskis, professor of clinical psychology and applied science at the University of Bath, says in official advice from the NHS. It is important to ride out the attack and not look for distractions; just remaining calm yourself can provide comfort.

Be reassuring

Panic attacks can be highly distressing; some people describe feeling as if they are having a heart attack or that they might die. It is important to reassure the person experiencing an attack that they are not in danger. The symptoms, attributable to the body’s fight or flight response, typically peak within 10 minutes.

Encourage deep breaths

Encourage the person to breathe slowly and deeply – Mind advises counting out loud or asking them to watch while you calmly raise your arm up and down. The NHS and No Panic also publish guides to calming breathing exercises.

Be careful not to be dismissive

Your “don’t panic” may be well-intentioned, but try to avoid any potentially dismissive language and phrases. As Matt Haig, author of the best-selling Reasons to Stay Alive, puts it: “Don’t belittle them. They’re among the most intense experiences you can go through.”

Try a grounding exercise

“One of the symptoms of panic attacks can be feeling unreal or detached,” says Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. Grounding techniques, or other ways to feel connected to the present, can be effective – Mind suggests focusing on the texture of a blanket, smelling something with a strong scent – and even stamping your feet.

Ask them what they need

People can often feel exhausted after a panic attack. Gently ask them if you can get them a glass of water or something to eat. (Caffeine, a psychostimulant, is best avoided, as is alcohol.) They may be feeling shivery or too hot. At a later point, when they have recovered, you might like to ask them what they find helpful during or after an attack.

Anxiety Or Panic Attack? Experts Explain The Difference

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Anxiety and panic attacks, both distressing and overwhelming, are terms often used interchangeably. There is, however, a clear distinction between the two and how the body responds to each.

Asmita Sharma, a psychologist at Antaraal, told Huffpost India that an anxiety attack doesn’t have strong physiological responses—breathing getting shallow, heart rate going up—like a panic attack.

The fundamental difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack is the prevalence of a trigger, said Tanya Vasunia, a psychologist at Mpower. “A trigger is a clinical term used to classify a person, event or situation which activates or sets off feelings of anxiety.”

If you’re worried about experiencing either, experts tell us the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack and how to manage both.

Panic attacks are unpredictable

Panic attacks are more unpredictable and generally do not have a trigger, Vasunia said. “This makes the individual feel extremely vulnerable as they have no clear idea when an attack can take place or what triggers them,” she added.

A panic attack shows itself through intense physiological responses like increased heart rate, shortness of breath, shaking of hands and legs, and a terrifying fear like you’re dying. This, she said, “may be because the feeling of being in danger is set off within the person even though they might not be in any imminent danger”.

What is an anxiety attack?

Anxiety attacks happen when there is a trigger. “It is important to note that there can be multiple triggers of a single anxious thought spiral,” she added.

Sharma added that anxiety can be understood in two forms—‘realistic anxiety’ that stems from real and actual danger and ‘neurotic anxiety’ comes from internal conflicts within us between what we want and what we can’t have. Anxiety, she said, may be pointing towards an impending danger.

Representative image.

How to manage panic and anxiety attacks?

Sharma said the person should be brought to familiar and safe surroundings. “It’s important that people around don’t lose their calm as that can add to the sense of anxiety. Having a circle of people who are willing to listen by suspending judgement is very important to someone going through anxiety.”

“Try to ensure the individual remains hydrated, getting them a cold glass of water to sip is often a good way to ensure this,” Vasunia suggested.

She also said that the person should be encouraged to engage in diaphragmatic breathing. This breathing involves the expansion and contraction of the stomach during inhalation and exhalation.

Experts agree that in the long run, the person should get in touch with a mental health professional. “If not managed correctly anxiety and panic attacks can lead to depressive symptoms, paranoia and substance abuse. It is imperative that the individual seeks professional help,” Vasunia said.