It’s 3 a.m. You’ve been soundly asleep, safely dreaming, when all of a sudden you’re woken up with a fright. A smoke alarm in your house is going off. A thousand thoughts run through your mind about your house burning down, the safety of others in the home, and your safety as well. You realize, you could die, but there isn’t much time for that thought. Your heart starts racing, your body goes into action, and you’re responding the emergency. Frantically, you find that there is no fire. All that reaction was for naught. After checking the house, you go back to bed and eventually fall back asleep.
Panic attacks are a similar scenario, only, there’s no fire alarm. There’s not even a fire. Without a single trigger, the panic attack sets in, setting off all the same symptoms, and worse. Each day, people living with panic disorder fear the onset of a panic attack which is unpredictable and sometime unmanageable. Instead of worrying about everyone else, a panic attack has but one focus: the fear of dying. For about twenty minutes, the brain is convinced not that it is going to die, but that it is already dying. Increased heart rate, dizziness, stomach cramps, shortness of breath, and high emotions all accompany a panic attack. After twenty minutes, everything suddenly subsides, leaving the individual exhausted.
Witnessing a panic attack as a loved one of someone with panic disorder can feel helpless. All help is not lost. Here are some suggestions for supporting a loved one through a panic attack.
Avoid Asking Triggering Questions
Panic is something that happens in the mind, with thoughts. Avoid asking thought-based questions about what is wrong, what they are feeling, or what they are thinking. Both of you know what is happening with a panic disorder. Don’t raise the panic in the brain by asking more about it. The less attention paid to the panic the better.
Instead, Ask Sensory Questions
Hearing, seeing, feeling (physically), smelling, and tasting are all sensory information channels. Focusing mindfulness on the senses will help take attention away from the mind and into the body. For each of the senses, ask them to identify three to five things immediately around them.
Keep Them Talking
When sensory exercises cease to succeed, just ask them to keep talking. They don’t have to talk about what they are thinking or feeling, but talk about something else. Ask them to describe a favorite place, a relaxing state, or happy memory. Ask questions about those scenes, neglecting to ask if it is helping or if they are feeling better. Just keep them talking.
Encourage Them To Breathe
Sometimes the best they will be able to do is try to breathe. If either f you has an app on phone with a guided meditation, offer to do it together. Have them put their hand on their chest or stomach and feel their breath coming in and out. Remind them to focus on the breath, noticing the fall and rise of the chest and the expansion of the lungs.
Avalon By The Sea is a mental health treatment center providing primary care for primary mental health diagnosis. Living with mental illness is possible. We strive to provide healing for mind, body, and spirit. For a confidential assessment or more information on our programs of treatment for personality and mood disorders, call 1 888-958-7511.