Panic attacks can be characterised by feelings of intense anxiety mixed with physical symptoms including shaking, breathlessness, sweating, dizziness, nausea, and a rapid heartbeat, amongst other things.
And they’re common, with 13.2% of the population estimated to have experienced a panic attack at some point in their life. But, despite this, there are also a lot of misconceptions about them – perhaps in part thanks to the way they have been portrayed in films and TV shows (think ‘overdramatic’ side-character breathing heavily into a brown paper bag), combined with mental health stigma and a lack of understanding.
Here, we go over some of the things you shouldn’t say to someone having a panic attack, however well-meaning, and what you can do instead.
There’s a difference between guiding a person through a panic attack and undermining their experience. Panic attacks are involuntary things, and it can be very hard to regain control once you are in the middle of one. Telling someone to just ‘calm down’ invalidates these experience, as it implies that it’s something the person can just snap out of.
Instead, see if there is anything that you can do to help create a calm, soothing environment for them. Could you create some space or lead them to somewhere with fresh air? Or could you help them to focus on taking deep, calming breaths?
A panic attack might have been triggered by something small – for example, being caught in a busy shop, being late, or even seemingly out of nowhere – but they are often the result of a long build-up of anxiety, or related to trauma. Telling someone that they’re overreacting could just make them worse, and it’s another way that you are invalidating what they’re going through.
Once they’re through the panic attack, you could try gently asking them if there was something in particular that triggered it. They may not have an answer, and that’s completely fine – but if they are able to identify something, it means that you can be aware of their triggers for the future.
Linked to the previous point, a panic attack could just be the tip of the iceberg of what someone is experiencing. Additionally, anxiety can affect the way that we respond to things that might usually not worry us.
It’s not helpful to say there’s nothing to worry about, but what you can do is remind them that they are safe, and do what you can to make sure that they feel secure. For example, you could lead them to a quieter space if they are happy to move, or you can take over their task if they were in the middle of something.
Men can face additional stigma when it comes to experiencing mental health problems, dealing with pressure to be ‘strong’, ‘stoic’, and ‘unemotional’. This can be hugely damaging, sets unrealistic standards, and encourage men to keep their experiences locked up inside them – which can then lead them to spiral.
If someone is having a panic attack, no matter what their gender, you should approach them with care and compassion. Listen to their experiences, and support them in whatever way you can.
There are a number of reasons why someone might not always be open about the mental health problems that they experience. But it’s important not to make someone feel guilty for not disclosing what they’re going through, or for speaking about things before they are ready.
You can address this in a positive way by taking the time to learn about mental health conditions, and by creating an open and caring environment, free of judgement. If you are close to the person, there’s nothing wrong with letting them know that you’re there for them, just as long as you don’t expect them to open up before they’re ready and that you’re prepared to take it at their pace.
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