Cast your mind back to the fright of your life. That time you were almost hit by a truck. That time someone crept up on you from behind. Think about how you felt: the racing heart, the shaking, the sweats.
That’s exactly what a panic attack feels like. So what should you do when you’re with someone who’s having one?
Associate Professor Caroline Hunt, of the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney says it might not always be obvious that someone is experiencing a panic attack. “If people have been experiencing panic attacks over a lengthy period of time they can often learn to keep the experience within themselves,” she explains.
But if someone turns to you and literally says, “I’m having a panic attack”, or you know they’ve got a history of anxiety, there are a few rules of thumb.
DO: Listen to them. “Be supportive, listen, understand what they’re actually experiencing, and feed that back to them. Say things like ‘yes that does sound like anxiety’ and ask them what they find helpful to let the attack pass,” says Dr Hunt.
DON’T: Be dismissive. “It might be helpful for them to talk about it. Just be supportive and understand them, don’t challenge them and tell them they’re being silly.”
DO: Find a safe, quite place. “Part of a panic attack can be trying to get to a place of safety. If you’re confronted with this out and about, it’s a good idea to say ‘Let’s see if there’s a quiet place we can go and sit down’.” Finding somewhere with a bit of space “can let the person think more clearly about what’s happening, so you can let them get over the peak of that attack.”
DON’T: Freak out. Dr Hunt explains that, while they are very unpleasant, a panic attack is not dangerous. You should do everything you can to remind the person that it will be over soon. “Although the feeling of anxiety does go on for a while, the really acute feelings will pass in a few minutes. Remind the person that what’s happening isn’t dangerous, that they might be feeling terrible, but if they stay with it for a while, it will pass.”