For someone experiencing a panic attack they can feel overwhelming and may include physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, chest pain, numbness or tingling sensation, trembling and dizziness.
The person can feel they are dying, losing control or going crazy but as clinical psychiatrist Cindy Aaronson explains “ultimately, panic attacks are just fear of fear”.
What happens during a panic attack?
During a panic attack the hormones adrenaline and cortisol floods into your bloodstream, putting your body on high alert. Your blood is diverted away from non-essential regions like your fingers and toes which could make them tingle or feel numb. Your heartbeat quickens, which sends more blood to your muscles. Your breathing becomes fast and shallow, so you can take in more oxygen, but can also cause you to hyperventilate. Your blood sugar spikes which can cause symptoms like shakiness, sweating and heart palpitations.
If you are with someone who is having a panic attack, there are different ways you may be able to help them:
- Remain Calm: Your calmness can help provide a sense of stability for the person experiencing the panic attack.
- Create a Safe Environment: If possible, move the person to a quieter or less stimulating environment. Reduce noise, crowds, or any factors that might exacerbate their anxiety.
- Encourage Deep Breathing: Encourage them to take slow, deep breaths, inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of four, and exhaling for a count of four.
- Offer Support and Reassurance: Use calming and supportive language to let them know that you’re there for them.
- Use Grounding Techniques: Encourage them to focus on their senses by identifying and naming objects they can see, touch, hear, and smell.
- Avoid Judgment or Criticism: validate their feelings and experience.
- Avoid Physical Restraints: Do not attempt to hold or restrict the person physically unless it’s to prevent harm to themselves or others.
- Offer Distractions: Suggest simple activities that might divert their attention, such as counting exercises, listening to calming music, or guided imagery.
- Seek help: If the panic attack is severe, prolonged, or if the person is at risk of harm, it’s important to seek professional assistance immediately. Be prepared to assist them in finding appropriate help.