Six million American adults experience panic disorders. Panic disorders are repeated episodes of intense fear called panic attacks. Panic attacks can happen at any time, even while sleeping.
People who experience panic attacks may feel that they are having a heart attack, are dying, or losing control. Their heart may race. They may have difficulty breathing and experience headaches, chest, or abdominal pains. They may feel weak, faint, nauseous, or dizzy. They may feel sweaty or have chills. They may experience tingling or numbness. Or, they may experience a sense of terror.
Our body’s fight or flight mode is working behind the scenes. When we encounter a threat, like a grizzly bear or a swerving car, our nervous system springs into action. Our adrenaline hormone floods into our bloodstream and we are put on high alert. As our heart beats faster, we send more blood to our muscles. We then breathe faster and take in more oxygen. Our blood sugar levels spike and our senses sharpen. We feel like we either need to confront the situation or quickly get out of harm’s way.
Stress is the leading reason why panic attacks happen. Pre-existing health conditions and certain medications can trigger panic attacks. As can substances and caffeine. Dramatic life changes, social events, reminders of traumatic experiences, diet, financial stress, and arguments or conflicts can also lead to panic attacks.
Researchers do not exactly know what triggers random panic attacks. We may begin to experience physical changes an hour before the attack. Even people without a panic disorder can have panic attacks. Overall, more than one in five people experience a panic attack in their lifetime. Before you can help a person who is having a panic attack, you need to know if it’s because of fear or anxiety they’re experiencing or if there’s a physical explanation.
Now, let’s discuss ways that you can help someone during a panic attack
1. Remain calm
Keeping your cool is one of the best ways you can help. Panic attacks usually don’t last long. The most intense feelings tend to last between 5 and 10 minutes.
2. Ask how you can help
Ask your loved one how you can help. Speak to them using short, simple sentences. Most people who experience panic attacks or live with other types of anxiety have their go-to coping methods. When offering support, keep in mind that your loved one knows best when it comes to what will help most.
3. Focus on action over words
A soothing, familiar voice helps some people, but try to avoid repeatedly saying things like “don’t worry” or asking them if they’re alright over and over. Ask them if it would help if they close their eyes. This can help them focus on their breathing and block out overwhelming triggers. Help them slow their breathing by breathing with them or by slowly counting to 10.
4. Listen non-judgmentally
Ask directly what they think might help (for example, moving away from a crowded area or sitting down). Don’t assume you know what’s best for them.
5. Assess for risk of harm
Ask them if it’s happened before and if they think they’re having one now. If it’s something they’re familiar with and they suspect it is, ask them if they’d like help. If they do, introduce yourself (if it’s a stranger).
Suffering a panic attack can be excruciating. “On the scale of 0 to 10, it’s a 10,” says Debra Kissen, who is the CEO of Light on Anxiety Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Treatment Centers in Illinois. “It feels like your whole brain and body are in freeze mode because you are in immediate danger – your pants aren’t on fire, but you have all the feelings and sensations of immediate danger. It feels like dying, going crazy, utterly out of control, but those feelings don’t match up with the moment.”
Jennifer Billings is the Medical Editor at Medicwell. She has 13 years of experience in internal medicine with a demonstrated history of working in the medical practice industry, both inpatient and outpatient urgent care. She has been published on Medicwell Blog, Medium.com, and is a regular contributor at MedCity News, Physician Family, and Psychology Today.