Watching someone having a panic or anxiety attack can be very scary. They suddenly shut down – stopped in their tracks by a tightness in their chest or feeling that they can’t catch their breath, or perhaps by a deep sense of fear and dread. An attack can sometimes look like a life-threatening emergency, so watching it unfold can be terrifying – especially if you don’t know how to respond.
If you’ve ever encountered a situation like this, you’re not alone – panic or anxiety attacks are quite common. A little more than 22% of Americans will suffer a panic attack at least once in their life, according to a national survey conducted in 2006.
Before we tackle things you can do when this happens, let’s take a moment and consider the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack. Many people use these two terms interchangeably, but they are somewhat different.
A panic attack suddenly comes out of nowhere; there is no stimulus (event, object) that sets it into motion. However, an anxiety attack is provoked by something – a fear of snakes, heights, spiders, etc. Physical symptoms between panic and anxiety attacks are quite similar so don’t get lost in the weeds trying to understand the difference.
Below is a list of symptoms to help you better understand what a panic attack looks like:
- Racing heart
- Ringing ears
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Tingling or numbness in hands and fingers
- Feeling sweaty or chilled
- Feeling weak
- Feeling nauseated
- Feeling out of control
- Chest constriction and pain
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Feeling a sense of impending doom or death
Now that you have an idea what a panic attack looks and feels like, let’s focus on what you can do when one strikes.
It’s important to realize that panic attacks typically last about 20 minutes. Symptoms usually peak (hit their worst) within 10 minutes, and then they begin to decline over the next 10 minutes (What a relief to know that these feelings and thoughts don’t last forever).
Panic attacks can be extremely frightening, emotionally painful, and for many, physically painful. Rest assured, these feelings are only temporary and tend to subside within 20 minutes.
If you’re present when a panic attack happens, here are a few things you can do to help ease your loved one’s level of distress:
- Remain quiet – avoid the temptation to engage the person by giving them advice like “You’re not having a heart attack! Why do you feel this way? This is all in your head – just relax!”
- Grab a cold towel and hold it against their forehead or allow them to do so
- Hold the person’s hand or put your hand on their shoulder to signal your calm presence
- Reassure them you will quietly sit with them until the panic attack passes
- Offer them a glass of water
- Stay calm in the face of chaos
- Remain present for at least 20-minutes until the symptoms subside
When a panic attack happens, it’s often quite difficult to remain calm because there is an extreme sense of urgency, discomfort, and fear for both you and your loved one. An easy way to remember the suggestions noted above is to keep this quick and easy acronym in mind:
Calm, Assurance, Presence, and Silence
If your friend’s panic attacks become more frequent, persistent, or debilitating, you may want to suggest they seek professional help from a mental health specialist or their family healthcare provider.