Helping a Loved One Experiencing Anxiety or a Panic Attack
Watching someone you love battle anxiety and panic attacks can be distressing. Because you do not know what to do when someone is having an anxiety attack, you might feel frustrated. If you are in a public place, you might struggle to control the situation.
The good news is there is plenty you can do for your loved one who has anxiety. Read on to get useful insight and actionable tips on how to deal with such a situation.
Society is very often dismissive of people who experience anxiety. Because the disorders do not present many physical symptoms, you don’t see what these people are dealing with. So it is easy to assume that that person is exaggerating. It is important to empathize with someone who has anxiety, although you may not understand what they are going through.
Understand Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Anxiety and panic attacks are often used interchangeably. However, they do not refer to the same thing. Everyone may experience anxiety in stressful situations. People with anxiety disorders often have moments where they are overwhelmed. These moments result from extreme stress.
Panic attacks are slightly different. They are brief but intense moments of irrational fear. Those experiencing a panic attack may not be in immediate danger. However, their fight-or-flight response is triggered, causing them great distress.
The symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks are quite similar. One may experience the following:
- An intense, inexplicable fear
- Sense of impending doom
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Sweating or chills
Stay Calm Even Though You Feel Overwhelmed
When you know the signs, you can figure out what to do when someone is having an anxiety attack. You might feel a little scared. Try your best to remain calm. Know that your loved one is counting on you for support at a difficult time. Do not panic, instead, remain calm and focus on helping them.
Ask Appropriate Questions
“Are you okay?” This is a seemingly normal question to ask while someone is having anxiety or a panic attack. When you see someone you love suffering, your instinct is to try fixing it. But constantly asking this can make your loved one feel pressured to get better.
Be careful with what you say to someone with anxiety. They may not interpret it well because they are not in their right senses at the time. You might even get a hurtful response to your question.
Here are some appropriate questions to ask someone in the heat of an anxiety or panic attack:
- Is there anything I can do to help you?
- Do you want to go to a quieter place?
- Do you want me to give you some space?
Act More, Talk Less
Actions speak louder than words during an anxiety attack. Your loved one might not be able to focus on what you say. Your words might make them more stressed. Take action by removing them from the situation.
Holding their hand in a crowded place may offer some comfort. Watch out for nonverbal cues to know which of your actions are comforting them.
Validate Their Feelings
What to say to someone with an anxiety attack? “I am always here for you.” “You seem uncomfortable.” “It must be hard for you to be here” Each of these statements validates your loved one’s feelings without seeking an explanation.
Their fear may not make sense to you, but that does not mean it is not real. Reassure them that you understand that they are going through a hard time and that you want to help.
Do Not Try to Make Sense of the Moment
Anxiety and panic attacks do not make sense. Trying to understand why they happen will frustrate you and your loved one. The person experiencing the attack may not understand why it is happening.
Do not spend time trying to get to the bottom of the matter. Instead, work on helping them to overcome it. Once they are calm, you can look into the causes and triggers of the attack.
Do Not Take Anything Personally
When you are witnessing your loved one in distress for the first time, you may not do or say the right things. You might get a harsh or hurtful response from them even though you are trying to help. Understand that they may not be in the best emotional and mental state during an attack. Try not to take their response personally.
Help Bring Their Focus Back to the Present
An intense anxiety or panic attack may feel surreal. Your loved one may be having an out-of-body experience. They may lose their sense of the present. Being trapped in irrational fear can make them forget where they are.
You can contain a panic attack using various grounding techniques. These techniques bring the person’s focus back to the present moment. It helps to make them aware of their surroundings and calm down.
Making them touch a physical item, such as a chair or wall, might trigger them back to reality.
Do Not Enable
What not to do when someone has a panic attack? Do not help them avoid the situation. When your loved one is in distress, your first instinct is to fix the situation. Eliminating the cause for concern might do them more harm than good. Continually avoiding facing challenging situations may worsen their anxiety.
Enabling behavior does not allow your loved one to overcome their fears. Do not limit their world by eliminating painful situations. Instead, help them deal with their fears directly.
Do Not Force Them to Confront Their Fears
Although you should not enable avoidance of difficult situations, you should not force someone to do something they are afraid of. Trying to push them to deal with anxiety when they are not ready will damage your relationship.
In the heat of the moment, focus on calming them down instead of trying to solve the cause of anxiety.
Talk about the Attack After They Have Calmed Down
Anxiety and panic attacks do not last long. Some last for only 5 minutes, others for 30 minutes. The good news is that they eventually pass. When your loved one has calmed down, it is time to find a long-lasting solution to their attacks.
Be compassionate and non-judgmental in your inquiry. Tell them that you are concerned for their well-being. Ask them how long they have experienced anxiety and panic attacks. Find out whether they have identified their triggers.
Talking calmly can help you know what not to do when someone has a panic attack. Ask your loved ones what works for them. They may have some calming techniques they prefer over others. They might give you insight into how to help them when they are in distress.
Encourage Them to Seek Professional Help
If anxiety and panic attacks have a big impact on the quality of your loved one’s life, they should seek help. A licensed therapist can help them deal with anxiety and manage it.
Several treatment options work:
- Exposure therapy – allows them to face the cause of anxiety in a controlled environment
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy – enables them to manage their reactions to triggers
- Family therapy – helps you work together to address and manage panic attacks
You should gently encourage your loved one to consult a mental health provider. If they are hesitant, do not force them. Bring it up when they are least likely to reject the idea. Remind them that just one appointment is enough; they do not have to commit to an entire treatment period.
Take Care of Yourself Too
Knowing how to help someone with anxiety and being there for them at all times can be draining. You can get mentally and emotionally affected each time you witness an anxiety or panic attack.
It is important to look after your own needs too. Taking care of yourself ensures you have the energy, time, and space to help a loved one.
Below are some self-care tips when dealing with someone who has anxiety or panic attacks:
- Do not shoulder more responsibility than you can handle – it is important to have limits and know how much you can do without exhausting yourself.
- Ask for help – it is okay to rely on others to help a loved one, especially if you are feeling tired.
- Express your concerns – talking to others about your fears can help you cope with the stress of taking care of someone.
- Seek therapy – couples or family therapy is useful in helping you deal with the reality of anxiety and panic attacks.
The Bottom Line
Watching someone you care for suffering through an anxiety or panic attack can be distressing. You might feel helpless, but there is plenty you can do to ease their discomfort. Validate their emotions, ask what you can do to help, and help them get help.
Know that online therapy can help alleviate the intensity of anxiety and panic attacks. Encourage your loved one to get help from a licensed counselor.
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Kate has an MD in Health and Medical Psychology. She has worked in the healthcare industry since 2017, helping people with depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief as well as identity, relationship, and adjustment issues. Kate tries to make the world a better place by fighting stigma and discrimination and advocating for equality and equity for all people. And what she loves most about her work at Calmerry is the possibility to make quality mental health care even more accessible to everyone – one step at a time.Read more