Have you ever experienced a dramatic physical expression of anxiety? Symptoms might include trouble breathing, chest pain, racing heartbeat, and blurred vision. This is a panic attack.
Panic attacks are serious mental health issues. Yet, many who suffer from panic attacks carry on without seeking treatment. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million people in the US each year. With such a significant number of people affected by panic attacks, it’s very likely you know someone who has panic attacks, or you’ve experienced or them yourself.
Panic attacks are dramatic, and you might feel confused about what to do to assist the sufferer. This article will go through everything you need to know. To get started, the article will outline what a panic attack is and what causes them. Then, steps will be outlined to help you understand how you can best aid a person undergoing a panic attack.
What are Panic Attacks?
A panic attack is a sudden rush of anxiety and fear, and extreme manifestation of a fight or flight reaction. The sufferer’s body enters a state where it is ready to act fast against an impending threat, despite there being no real danger present.
Here’s what it feels like: your heart rate increases drastically, you experience heavy breathing, and your pupils narrow, causing tunnel vision. This is just a sample of symptoms that one may experience – people who suffer from a panic attack will experience a variety of physical symptoms and emotions. These may vary from mild confusion and embarrassment to irrational fears of dying.
Panic attacks are often triggered by a situation, person, or thing associated with deep feelings of anxiety or fear. For example, a fear of driving over bridges, speaking in public, or being around dogs may trigger a panic. An episode can occur even if these fears have not triggered an actual panic attack before. However, an attack normally happens when these triggers are combined with a negative or stressful situation. For example, you may be pushed into having a panic attack when seeing a loved one in a hospital.
An attack can take place at any time, and in any place. You could experience a panic attack in public places, such as while walking down the street, behind the wheel of a car, sitting on the couch, in the store shopping. A panic attack typically ends within 10 to 20 minutes. Rarely, some episodes last for an hour. Regardless of how long a panic attack lasts, sufferers report that it is an exceedingly stressful occurrence.
There are many people who will experience one, two, or even several panic attacks without further complications or episodes. Conversely, there are those who experience multiple and recurring panic attacks and go on to develop what is known as panic disorder.
When Panic Attacks Develop into a Disorder
Panic attacks develop into a disorder when the fear and anxiety of having an attack becomes an impediment to a person’s life. They may curtail their social interactions out of fear of being stricken with a panic attack while in public.
The ADAA states that six million people suffer from panic disorder, which is 2.7 percent of the adult population. With a panic disorder, the episodes are not associated with a specific situation or person. Instead, the attacks become triggered by the fear of having another attack. The very memory that of a panic attack induces fear and terror. This state of mind can have a lasting negative impact on a person’s self-confidence, leading to a disruption in day-to-day life.
These feelings lead to two related psychological complications:
- Anticipatory Anxiety
- Phobic Avoidance
Anticipatory anxiety is when you feel anxious and tense in between panic attacks instead of getting back to your normal routine. This fear is almost always present, and when left untreated, it can be debilitating.
Phobic avoidance occurs when you avoid the environment where the attack occurred or the situations that you feel caused the attack. In your mind, avoiding these places and situations will prevent future panic attacks. You may also avoid places that you feel would provide you with limited escape routes. When phobic avoidance is taken to its extreme, you could develop a fear of going into any open or public spaces. This is known as agoraphobia, which often develops as a complication of panic attacks.
How to Recognize a Panic Attack
The symptoms associated with a panic attack are dramatic, and many people confuse the episodes with a heart attack. The symptoms associated with a panic attack will develop abruptly and generally reach their peak within 10 minutes.
Here are the major panic attack symptoms that you should watch out for, in yourself or someone else:
- Heart palpitations
- Choking feeling
- Hyperventilation (Shortness of breath)
- Hot or cold flashes
- Upset stomach
- Feeling lightheaded or faint
- Fear of losing control or dying
- Difficulty breathing
Generally, a panic attack leaves the sufferer looking as if they had just been sprinting.
Three Steps to Take to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack
It only takes a few minutes for a panic attack to bubble up. Often time, sufferers can feel physical sensations which warn of a panic attack coming on, and may warn you that they are about to experience a panic attack. If someone near you is having an attack, acting quickly may help reduce the severity and duration of the attack. Here are the steps you need to take:
- Tell the person to stop what they are doing and sit. Then, help them relax by guiding them to take deep, complete breaths. Let them know that they are having a panic attack and that it is possible for them to take control. Next, tell the sufferer to relax and take deep breaths. Remind them that nothing life-threatening or irreversible is happening to them.
- Speak to the person with Coping Statements: “Your fear is making your heart pound harder, but your heart is actually fine”. Coping statements are assurances that the sufferer will be okay.
- Show the person that their feelings are real, and nothing to be ashamed of. A person having a panic attack may feel very embarrassed, even devastated that they are having an attack in front of you or in public. Reassure them that there is no judgment and that they are supported.
Read more: How To Stop A Panic Attack
In the long term, help the sufferer by encouraging them to cope with the feelings or situations that triggered the attack in the first place. This may involve helping that person go to a health care provider to get medical treatment. It can also take the form of helping them accept the feelings that led them to have the panic attack. For instance, if the sufferer had an attack due to stage fright, suggest that they take a public speaking course.
It is also very important to help a person accept that their panic attacks are reversible, momentary afflictions, and not long-term medical conditions. Acknowledge that the attack took place, and help them accept it. Assure the person that they need not feel embarrassed or ashamed. If necessary, watch that the person has not started to curtail their normal lives around their fear of panic attacks. This is a bad sign that a panic disorder may be developing, and the help of a health provider is important.
How to Prevent Panic Attacks
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are no guaranteed methods that help people prevent a panic attack, but there are lifestyle changes a person can make to reduce the risk of suffering from an attack.
Getting medical treatment as soon as the attack occurs can stop the attack from getting worse or progressing into a series of episodes. It is imperative that you encourage the sufferer to see a health provider and follow their treatment plan correctly. They may prescribe things like behavioral therapy or anti-anxiety medications. Going off course of the treatment could exacerbate the symptoms.
Physical activity is another great way to stave off a panic attack and reduce general anxiety. Just like the mind, a person’s body needs to be stimulated and active, and doing these activities in groups can further enable a person to stay on track. Group activities like running, sports, and hiking are great options to help a person alleviate anxiety and panic attacks and be happier in life generally. This could be an addition to incorporating other relaxation techniques into the person’s life, such as yoga and meditation.
Spire is another great option to help someone who suffers from panic attacks Spire. Spire carefully tracks your emotional state throughout the day, which helps ensure that you are taking a break and doing breathing exercises when stress levels get too high. For someone prone to panic attacks, this can be an essential tool. Being able to stave off panic attacks before they bubble up can greatly improve a person’s day-to-day experience, and may even solve the issue of panic attacks altogether.
It’s commendable that you are seeking to help someone afflicted with panic attacks. Even though the sufferer is certainly going through a lot, it is also hard to watch someone going through a panic attack – it can be overwhelming and intimidating. However, armed with the knowledge from this article, you should be able to confidently manage the situation when someone is next afflicted with a panic attack.