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What not to do when someone is having a panic attack.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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DO: Make sure that it’s not something more serious. “It can be tricky because a panic attack can present as something worse quite often. The feelings are very strong to that person.  So unless they’ve had information from their GP or psychologist, they’re not going to know that they’re having a panic attack and neither are you.” Because a racing heart, shaking and sweating can also be symptoms of a cardiac problem, you should treat these symptoms as a medical emergency unless you know for sure they are anxiety. Dr Hunt says that even clinical psychologists make sure their patients have been thoroughly medically checked out before they start treatment, to make sure it really is anxiety, and not something else.

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DON’T: Make the person breath into a paper bag. It’s a cliche, but breathing into a paper bag used to be a treatment for anxiety because it kind of works. If you’ve been hyperventilating (breathing too quickly) recycling your breath, and thereby consuming more carbon dioxide, can counteract the effects. But it’s an embarrassing thing to make someone do.

Dr Hunt says that even doing slow breathing exercises isn’t the best option. “I wouldn’t say this should be your first choice because if you say to people ‘You’re experiencing these really unpleasant feelings. Do this. Slow your breathing’ people won’t realise that the feelings will pass without intervention. Some people talk about ‘surfing the panic’, just sitting with the uncomfortable feelings and allowing yourself to experience them in a neutral way until they go away.”

If you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety, contact your GP or reach out to Beyond Blue, for more information.

Have you ever experienced a panic attack? What did you do?

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