More than 13% of people are susceptible to panic attacks, which can be very intense and distressing. So what are the symptoms and how best can you respond?
According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), 13.2% of people have experienced a panic attack. If you know someone who suffers from them frequently, it can be helpful to better understand what they are. Attacks can last between five and 30 minutes, with symptoms including rapid breathing, sweating, a racing heart, shivering and feeling sick. The NHS, MHF, the mental health charities Mind, Time to Change and No Panic have resources available.
“If you’re having a short, sudden panic attack, it can be helpful to have someone with you reassuring you that it will pass,” Paul Salkovskis, professor of clinical psychology and applied science at the University of Bath, says in official advice from the NHS. It is important to ride out the attack and not look for distractions; just remaining calm yourself can provide comfort.
Panic attacks can be highly distressing; some people describe feeling as if they are having a heart attack or that they might die. It is important to reassure the person experiencing an attack that they are not in danger. The symptoms, attributable to the body’s fight or flight response, typically peak within 10 minutes.
Encourage deep breaths
Encourage the person to breathe slowly and deeply – Mind advises counting out loud or asking them to watch while you calmly raise your arm up and down. The NHS and No Panic also publish guides to calming breathing exercises.
Be careful not to be dismissive
Your “don’t panic” may be well-intentioned, but try to avoid any potentially dismissive language and phrases. As Matt Haig, author of the best-selling Reasons to Stay Alive, puts it: “Don’t belittle them. They’re among the most intense experiences you can go through.”
Try a grounding exercise
“One of the symptoms of panic attacks can be feeling unreal or detached,” says Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. Grounding techniques, or other ways to feel connected to the present, can be effective – Mind suggests focusing on the texture of a blanket, smelling something with a strong scent – and even stamping your feet.
Ask them what they need
People can often feel exhausted after a panic attack. Gently ask them if you can get them a glass of water or something to eat. (Caffeine, a psychostimulant, is best avoided, as is alcohol.) They may be feeling shivery or too hot. At a later point, when they have recovered, you might like to ask them what they find helpful during or after an attack.
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