Panic attacks and their close cousin flashbacks can be terrifying spectacles. The person having the panic attack may be so debilitated by the fear of having another attack that they are unable to cope with normal life. Meanwhile, the friend or loved one who witnesses someone they care about having a panic attack may feel helpless and have no idea what to do to help. There are, however, several things you can do to help a friend or family member in the midst of a panic attack. Here’s how to help:
Talk About it In Advance
If you want to be able to help someone you care about cope with panic attacks, it’s important that you talk to them about their panic attacks before one happens. There are essentially two forms of panic attacks: panic attacks that come out of nowhere and that are most often the result of panic disorder, and panic attacks that come from extreme anxiety or reminders of traumatic events, which are most often the result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or another anxiety disorder.
In the former case, there is likely little you can do to prevent your loved one from having a panic attack in the first place. But in the latter case, if you learn more about your loved one’s triggers and common sources of stress, you may begin to be able to detect a situation that is likely to cause a panic attack and help them get out of it before they completely lose control.
Help Them Become Aware of Their Surroundings
During a panic attack of a flashback, one of the most common occurrences is a sense of detachment and dissociation from one’s own body, which often serves to increase the panic. If you see someone you love beginning to have a panic attack, help remind them of their surroundings. Orient them to objects in the room, people in the room, and other elements that may help them to avoid “leaving” and heading into a full panic.
People having panic attacks often either lose control of their breathing or induce a panic attack by becoming so frightened that they forget to breathe properly. Encourage your loved one to take slow, deep breaths and if she starts to hyperventilate, have a paper bag ready. Breathing into a paper bag can help her to take slower, more deliberate breaths and thus avoid fainting.
Avoid Sudden Movements
Avoid sudden movements that may startle your friend. This is especially true of people having a flashback as a result of PTSD. Many sufferers of PTSD actually begin having flashbacks when startled awake while sleeping, so it’s important that you avoid doing anything that may started a sufferer of PTSD, especially when he is sleeping.
Provide a Safe and Loving Environment
For people suffering from panic attacks, the world is a scary and uncontrollable place. Providing your loved one with a safe space to talk about her fears and a loving environment can help her begin to regain control, thus lessening the likelihood of future panic attacks. It’s also helpful to provide a calm and soothing environment after the panic attack is over and give your loved one an opportunity to talk about what just happened, what might have triggered it, what she was feeling, etc.
Panic attacks can be scary to watch, but it is possible for you to provide loving support if you’re willing to become observant, compassionate, and a good listener!