Knowing How Anxiety Works Can Help You To Better Support Loved Ones Without Inadvertently Making Their Anxiety Worse
When I first moved into my spouses house in 2001, she didnt want to include my name in our answering machine greeting. Because of our big age gap and same-sex relationship, she was justifiably anxious about how her parents would react to my having moved in so she kept it from them for several months. Though I felt a great deal of compassion for her and her situation, I was also frustrated that her anxiety was affecting meand I didnt like acting as though we had something to be ashamed of.
Scenarios like this are common when someone in your life is struggling with anxiety. Your loved one may feel so fearful that they avoid taking action, or act in ways that are inconsiderate or that increase your own anxiety. This might look like a boyfriend constantly putting off important tasks or discussions, a friend complaining about being lonely but refusing to date, or a boss always focusing on what could go wrong, making everyone miserable. Its difficult to witness anxiety in someone you know, and its even harder when their anxiety triggers yours.
But what can you do to help anxious people?
While its upsetting and frustrating to see these folks suffer, there are things you can do to help. Here are some of the strategies I recommend based on my book, The Anxiety Toolkit.
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How To Help Someone With A Panic Attack
Asked by: Dr. Skylar Windler
Focus On Action Over Words
A soothing, familiar voice helps some people, but try to avoid repeatedly saying things like dont worry or asking them if theyre alright over and over.
Of course you mean well, but your words may not have much benefit in the moment. They can also make the situation more stressful, since your loved one may believe theyre doing something wrong by not being alright.
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Panic Disorder With Agoraphobia
Agoraphobia was traditionally thought to involve a fear of public places and open spaces. However, it is now believed that agoraphobia develops as a complication of panic attacks and panic disorder. Although it can develop at any point, agoraphobia usually appears within a year of your first recurrent panic attacks.
If youre agoraphobic, youre afraid of having a panic attack in a situation where escape would be difficult or embarrassing. You may also be afraid of having a panic attack where you wouldnt be able to get help. Because of these fears, you start avoiding more and more situations.
For example, you may begin to avoid:
- Crowded places such as shopping malls or sports arenas.
- Cars, airplanes, subways, and other forms of travel.
- Social gatherings, restaurants, or other situations where it would be embarrassing to have a panic attack.
- Physical exercise in case it triggers panic.
- Certain food or drinks that could provoke panic, such as alcohol, caffeine, sugar, or specific medications.
- Going anywhere without the company of someone who makes you feel safe. In more severe cases, you might only feel safe at home.
Feeling Of Doom And Peak
At this point youâll often experience feelings of doom. Once again, this is entirely uncontrollable, and a natural reaction the symptoms. Itâs at this point where people feel like theyâre about to die, or as though something terrible is about to happen. All of these symptoms become more and more overwhelming.
Suddenly it peaks. You experience this intense dread, and it feels like time slows down to a stop. Then everything starts to drain slowly away. You start to feel a little bit better, but only marginally so, and often youâll be filled with a considerable amount of fatigue from that entire experience. Youâll be sweaty, shaking, and possibly still have health anxiety or fears as a result. But youâll usually feel a tad bit better as it starts its slow but steady decline.
Anxiety attacks may have other symptoms as well. There are unusual symptoms like back pain, nerve firing, cold feet, and even itching. There are also severe symptoms like derealization . All of these are no more dangerous, but all of them can be very concerning to the person who is experiencing them.
Panic attacks are not dangerous events, and many who get them are completely healthy. But there are so many physical symptoms involved and so much anxiety that they often feel like something terrible is wrong with your health â even if you know you have an anxiety attack problem.
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Make Them Smell Some Lavender:
Anxiety can be reduced by a soothing scent. The scent helps in relieving or reducing anxiety by tapping into the senses and thus helping the affected person remain grounded and giving them something to concentrate on. This helps them take away their attention from their anxiety.
A common traditional home remedy that is known for bringing about a sense of calm and relaxation is Lavender. Several studies have reported that lavender can help in relieving anxiety. You can try this remedy with someone experiencing panic attacks and anxiety.
Try to hold the lavender oil under the nose of the affected person and let them gently inhale. But make it very sure that if the person dislikes the smell then try to replace the lavender oil with any other essential oil like the chamomile oil, bergamot orange, or lemon.
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Offer A Coping Statement
While someone is having a panic attack, we do want to be empathic, but we dont want to reinforce the idea that panic is dangerous, harmful, or needing to be reduced, minimized, or escaped.
So, rather than giving your loved one lots of reassurance and fussing over them, it can help to remind them that they can cope with whats happening on their own. This gives them back their power to deal with the situation.
You can do this by offering supportive statements like:
- You can handle these symptoms.
- This will pass.
- The feelings arent comfortable, but you can accept them.
- This will roll over you, like a wave.
Remind them that, although panic attacks can feel never-ending, they typically peak in about 10 minutes. Its not possible for the body to stay ramped up for much longer than that.
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Quick Read Anxiety Support 101
- Theres a difference between normal, everyday anxiety and having an anxiety disorder.
- If an anxious friend decides to confide in you, show you support them.
- Validate, rather than minimize, their experience.
- If you dont have an anxiety disorder, avoid offering advice without listening to your friend.
- Tell them youre there for them, ask how you can help and listen to what they have to say.
Its never not awkward telling someone I have anxiety disorders. And Ive had to tell a lot of people: friends, family, supervisors, dates.
Opening up to others can be validating and freeing, but its always stressful at first because I dont know how theyll respond. Being stereotyped or treated insensitively when youre struggling can be nerve-wracking, especially if you already get down on yourself for having anxiety.
What Ive learned in my many years of coming clean is that most people mean well. They dont want to say the wrong thing, but it can be hard for them to know the right thing to say if they dont know much about anxiety.
While everyone experiences anxiety, people experience differing degrees of severity, says Ty Lostutter, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety and treats patients at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance at South Lake Union.
Anxiety is normal and healthy. It keeps us safe and motivates us, Lostutter says. It only becomes a problem when someone becomes overly anxious and it interferes with daily life.
Tips For Calming A Panic Attack
Knowing how to calm a panic attack is more useful than you may think. In the US, 40 million adults have some type of anxiety disorder. Even those who have no history of anxiety disorders may also suffer from a panic attack at some point in their life and dont know how to calm themselves down.
While panic attacks generally wont cause serious physical health dangers, they can still be scary if you dont know how to calm it down right away. However, the good news is, there are ways to calm yourself down to get through a panic attack better.
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How To Help Someone Having A Panic Attack: 3 Immediate Actions You Can Take
These physical sensations are very real.
It happened in the last place I wanted it to: the airport security line at Newark Liberty International Airport. Someone had accidentally taken my laptop and I had a panic attack.
I knew what was happening, even as I asked an overwhelmed TSA agent what I was supposed to do about my bag. My breath started to rattle. My heart rate jumped. My skin crawled with chills, and my environment started to appear distorted. I sat down. People stared, their concerned eyes looking at me over their face masks.
As I tried to breathe, an angel appeared. Vanessa from United Airlines crouched next to me in heels, gently asked if I wanted help, if she had permission to touch my arm, and basic, grounding questions. Then she led me to a private space to compose myself.
Having a panic attack sucks, but its also difficult to know how to help someone having an attack with such grace as Vanessa. Most people will have one or two panic attacks at some point in their life. If you havent had one, its likely youll come across someone who is in the midst of a panic attack. What Vanessa did helped me. Experts tell me there are other helpful steps you can take, too.
How To Tell If Its A Panic Attack
Before you can help a person who is having a panic attack, you need to know if its because of fear or anxiety theyre experiencing or if theres a physical explanation.
Here are 10 symptoms of panic attacks to look for:
IMPORTANT NOTE: Do these symptoms look familiar? Theyre also signs of cardiac distress. Its difficult to know if a person is experiencing a panic attack or a heart attack.
The best thing to do is ask if the person has had a panic attack before. If they havent and they dont think theyre having one now, call 9-1-1 and follow physical first aid protocol. If the person loses consciousness, call an ambulance, check for breathing and pulse and apply physical first aid principles. You can also check for a medical alert bracelet or necklace for more information.
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Treatment For Panic Attacks And Panic Disorder
The most effective form of professional treatment for tackling panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia is therapy. Even a short course of treatment can help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviors that are sustaining or triggering your panic attacks and helps you look at your fears in a more realistic light. For example, if you had a panic attack while driving, what is the worst thing that would really happen? While you might have to pull over to the side of the road, you are not likely to crash your car or have a heart attack. Once you learn that nothing truly disastrous is going to happen, the experience of panic becomes less terrifying.
Hotlines and support
NAMI Helpline Trained volunteers can provide information, referrals, and support for those suffering from anxiety disorders in the U.S. Call 1-800-950-6264.
Find a Therapist Search for anxiety disorder treatment providers in the U.S.
Support Groups List of support groups in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa.
Anxiety UK Information, support, and a dedicated helpline for UK sufferers and their families. Call: 03444 775 774.
Anxiety Canada Provides links to services in different Canadian provinces.
SANE Help Centre Provides information about symptoms, treatments, medications, and where to go for support in Australia. Call: 1800 18 7263. .
How To Help Someone Having A Panic Attack
A panic attack is a brief but intense rush of fear.
These attacks involve symptoms similar to those experienced when facing a threat, including:
- head and chest pain
Panic attacks differ from a typical fear response because theres no actual threat involved.
Panic attack triggers arent always easy to identify, so people who have one attack often worry about having more, especially in public.
Panic attacks usually feel very uncomfortable and cause significant distress. Many people believe theyre experiencing a heart attack or other life-threatening issue.
If you know someone who experiences panic attacks, there are several things you can do to help them in the moment.
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Focus On Your Breathing
Concentrate on your breathing. Dont hold your breath, but breathe in slowly through your nose as you count to 5. Then breathe slowly out your mouth as you count to 5.
Keep focusing on your breathing for as long as you need to. If breathing and counting doesnt work for you, there are lots of other breathing techniques you can try.
Focus on whats around you. Remind yourself that youre having a panic attack and that it cant hurt you.
Try holding onto something or tasting chewing gum to help keep you grounded. Try naming:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch or feel
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste.
It can be tempting to try and leave or avoid the situation, but try not to. Stay where you are and keep focusing on things here and now until you feel calmer.
Focus on reminding yourself that:
- anxiety cant harm me
- I am in control.
Having a panic attack can leave you feeling tired or drained. Give yourself time afterwards to sit somewhere quietly, or to have something to eat or drink.
Talk about it
Talking can really help. Telling someone you trust can give you a chance to explain whats happened and let your feelings out.
Write things down
Treatment For Panic Attacks
When you visit a doctor for panic attack treatment, they will likely recommend a combination of techniques to address your panic attacks. Your doctor may also recommend counseling or working with a mental health specialist to address an underlying cause of anxiety, depression, or panic disorder. In many cases, a combination of medication, counseling, and lifestyle changes can help you effectively manage your symptoms of a panic attack. Lifestyle changes may range from eating more nutritious meals to getting plenty of sleep at night. Your doctor will likely want to know about your typical physical activity and may recommend you engage in light to moderate physical activity each day to help boost your overall mental and physical health. Learning about stress management techniques, including some of the examples listed above, can also help you calm down from a panic attack. Identifying any potential triggers, like caffeine or a specific activity, can help you recognize what to limit or restrict in your daily routines.
At AICA Orthopedics, our team of doctors is here to help you and support your health and well-being. Visit an AICA Orthopedics location near you to get started with one of our doctors or chiropractors, and you will receive the personalized attention and care that you deserve. Call or visit us online to schedule an appointment at an office near you!
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Can We Practice A Grounding Exercise Together
During panic attacks, people often feel completely out of control, both physically and mentally. A grounding exercise can help.
Grounding exercises help bring people back to the present moment, Dr. Siegel explains. Practicing something like noticing five things you can touch, four things you can hear, and three things you can see, helps bring peoples attention back to the here and now, without over-relying on distraction. Plus, offering to do this together with the person having the panic attack helps them feel supported, and as if you are truly going through this with them.
Whats The Difference Between Anxiety And A Panic Attack
Anxiety is usually related to something that is perceived to be stressful or threatening. The symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe. Learn more about anxiety here.
A panic attack is a sudden, intense episode of fear or anxiety, accompanied by at least four of the following symptoms:
- racing heart or palpitations
- sweating shortness of breath or feelings of choking
- dizziness, trembling or shaking
- numbness or a tingling sensation
- hot and cold flashes
- fear of dying or of losing control
- queasy stomach or nausea
- feeling detached from oneself and one’s surroundings.
Panic attacks can be triggered by an event or a stressor, or there may be no apparent cause at all. They have severe symptoms that disrupt what youre doing at that moment. Get more info on panic attacks here.
Another term you might have heard is anxiety attack. Theres no one definition of anxiety attacks that everyone agrees on. Sometimes the term is used to describe panic attacks, and other times its used to describe a feeling of intense anxiety .
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