If you are around when someone you know is having a panic attack, it may seem like there is very little you can do to help. But quite the opposite is true. In truth, there is a great deal you can do to help someone who is going through a panic attack.
In order to help someone who is having a panic attack, you first have to understand a little something about panic attacks. That’s why it pays to do your homework ahead of time and educate yourself just a bit on what a panic attack is (and isn’t), what it can (and can’t) do, and what to do (and not to do) to alleviate one.
So when you find yourself in the presence of someone going through a panic attack, first get control over yourself. Make sure you’ve taken a couple of deep breaths and are relatively centered yourself, or you’re liable to make the individual experiencing the attack even more panicked. Once you’re sure you have a clear (enough) head to proceed (evident if in no other way than by your recalling these steps) then you can move on to the next step…
…which is to ask the person (if you don’t already know) if this is the first time they’ve experienced these symptoms. If it is, then you should immediately seek medical aid to make sure that these really aren’t the symptoms of a greater problem.
If it’s not the first time this person has experienced a panic attack, help them to a seated position (if they’re not already seated) and help them to take a few deep breaths. Then speak with them to find out if they know the cause. If they can establish a cause for the attack then, depending on what it is, you can either remove them from the situation or discuss the irrationality of their fear with them rationally. Do not, however, invalidate their fears or belittle them. Do not give the person any reason to feel ashamed for their state. All you’re trying to do is calm them down right now. And often this is enough to alleviate the attack.
If it’s not, just stay with them, calmly holding their hand, looking into their eyes compassionately, and listening to them if they feel the need to talk. If what they’re experiencing really is a panic attack, it should subside in 20 minutes (though some may last an hour). If it last considerably longer, then once again the best advice is to seek medical assistance. This is one of those many cases where it is a lot better to be safe than sorry.
Panic Disorder With Agoraphobia
Panic attacks often occur in combination with other mental disorders, one of the most common being the anxiety disorder agoraphobia. Interestingly enough, while agoraphobia has long been believed (both medically and commonly) as the fear of public places and crowded spaces, more and more medical experts are changing their stance to one that says agoraphobia emerges as a consequence (and possibly even a complication) of panic attacks. This is because the gist (and genesis) of agoraphobia is an irrational fear of experiencing a panic attack in said public place or crowded space.
Regardless, however the two may be linked, agoraphobia combined with panic attack symptoms can show up as a number of different avoidance patterns (in other words, by avoiding one or more of a wide variety of circumstances).
People who have panic disorder with agoraphobia may avoid:
• situations in which they have to be far away from their home for any period of time
• going places without the accompaniment of a known and trusted individual
• exerting themselves physical for fear it may trigger panic attack symptoms
• attending social gatherings where experiencing a panic attack would feel humiliating
• going places where it would be difficult to make a “clean getaway” if it got to be too much (i.e. theaters, public
• driving a vehicle
• consuming foods and beverages they may associate with triggering a panic attack
• taking medications, out of anxiety over what the medicines might do to them besides (or rather than) what the doctor intended; or, for that matter, out of distrust for the doctor
This last one is a particularly tricky scenario to deal with because a person with panic disorder with agoraphobia who has a deep-seated distrust of doctors or the health care system in general, might not find any doctor they trust to help them. In fact, failing to seek appropriate medical help is unfortunately an all-too-common problem for agoraphobics. What then?
What then, indeed. One option is to bring with you a trusted friend or loved one to all your medical appointments. Whenever you feel distrustful of the doctor, you can always bounce your fears off your chaperone and get immediate feedback from someone you do trust.
When exposed to any of the above situations, a person with panic attacks and agoraphobia may feel trapped, “backed into a corner”, with no foreseeable routes of escape to safer sanctuary. A sense of helplessness and hopelessness often accompanies panic attacks with agoraphobia.
Panic disorder with agoraphobia must be dealt with if the person is to live any semblance of a normal life. Otherwise, they will only end up avoiding more and more situations until they have little remaining but the bare trappings of a life. Avoiding cars, trains, subways, and planes severely restricts a person’s ability to travel and see the world, or even to leave the home for work or shopping. Avoiding stores, theaters, sports arenas, and night clubs does the same, prohibitively limiting a person’s social opportunities and perpetuating a panic inducing lonely existence.
To end this piece on a hopeful note, people suffering from agoraphobia should realize that 90% of their peers achieve a complete recovery.