Panic and anxiety attacks are terrifying for those experiencing them, but can be almost equally frightening for those watching their loved ones go through these painful experiences. Often bystanders are left feeling scared and helpless as they try to get through to those they care about. Below are a few tips that can be used when trying to help someone else through a panic or anxiety attack.
When someone is in a high crisis state the pre-frontal cortex (forehead area – responsible for reasoning and decision making) begins to shut down and blood flow is diverted to the hind brain (area near the base of the skull – responsible for fight, flight, freeze response). The person experiencing the panic attack may have extreme difficulty in making clear decisions and rational thoughts due to this. Avoid statements like “You’re over-reacting” “Just calm down” “You’re being irrational”. The feelings and reactions experienced during a panic attack feel very real in that moment and dismissing them can actually make someone’s reaction stronger.
As someone trying to support someone experiencing a panic attack, below are some things you can do to help:
- Speak slowly in a soft tone
- Use the person’s name when speaking to them and ask them to make eye contact with you if they are able.
- Encourage the person to connect to their surroundings:
- Ask them to lie down flat on the floor or really feel their bodies in a chair with their feet on the floor
- Ask them to describe the room around them. Eg. I’m in a brown chair, the carpet is grey, the room has two windows etc
- Encourage the person to breathe deeply. Ask them to breathe in and out slowly to the count of 5 while you count for them.
- Ask the person to count backwards from 10 to 1
- Ask them to massage the sides of their forehead or you can do this for them.
- Encourage them to cross their arms and alternately tap the opposite side of their body (cross-tapping). This reconnects the flow between the right and left sides of the brain and is known to have a calming effect.
- Ask them to tell you about a happy memory or recite a poem or song lyrics
Anything to distract the person from their runaway thoughts is appropriate. Until the person has deescalated, logic will often not be effective. Once they have calmed, then you can talk about the fears directly. If the person has a pattern of panic attacks, develop an action plan around what they find most helpful, and how they can communicate to you that they need support.