I am a big believer in the following sentiment (in fact, I think I made it up): Show me you at your best and I will congratulate you. Show me you at your worst and I will trust you.
Well, my friends … time to earn your trust …
For years I have been dealing with, battling against, and succumbing to Panic Disorder. There are times in my life when it was so debilitating that I did not leave the house for days (maybe weeks) and could not even walk to my own mailbox. Then there have been periods in my life when I thought I was cured of panic entirely after living months without a panic episode. I have sought help for this condition in various forms, including: cognitive-behavioral therapy (counseling), massage, energy healing, medication, homeopathic tinctures, meditation, exercise, diet changes, etc. Most were quite effective to varying degrees … with the exception of anti-anxiety tinctures (which are apparently great if you don’t already know that they are simply for a placebo-effect and have little else to offer). But nothing has cured me.
Anxiety and panic, by themselves, are not necessarily “disorders”. It is quite natural to experience either or both when a stressful or dangerous situation presents itself in our lives. Panic is a fight-or-flight response to perceived threats to our safety or well-being. In dangerous or stressful situations, our body gets ready to react. Adrenaline flows and the nervous system readies itself for meeting the situation head-on or for getting the heck out. When anxiety/ panic goes from natural to “disorder” is when the body/ nervous system continuously goes into fight-or-flight mode on a whim and without the presence of threatening stimuli or perceived danger. Sure, in these cases there is often some deep psychological stuff going on in the brain that somehow tells the body that we are in danger … but the stimuli is generally unknown at the time of panic. Again, experiencing these panic episodes when the stimuli calls for them is perfectly natural. And stress can bring on an attack every once in a while (also quite natural). When panic becomes a bigger problem is when attacks are often, unpredictable, happen without any known causation and cause the sufferer to live in fear of the next attack.
You can find much information on the web regarding the characteristics of panic attacks … as well as the diagnosis and treatment of panic disorder. I encourage anyone who is dealing with these issues or loves someone who is to read here, here and here … as well as doing some research on your own.
Much has been written medically and academically on the subject of Panic Disorder. And I am so grateful for all of it as it has certainly helped me to better understand myself. But not much seems to be written anecdotally … personally … about people’s experiences with this issue. So, I am going to attempt a bit of a public service post on the subject in the hope that it helps someone(s).
What exactly is going on with your friend who is having a panic attack.
I am no expert on panic disorder, unless you count experience … then I might be the Jedi Master of Panic Attacks. So, I can tell you a bit about what generally happens during a panic attack, but for more scientific information please see the above links I have provided. Here is what is true for me (and for others I know) when I am suffering a panic attack:
- my heart races so fast that I am sure I am having a heart attack
- I become light-headed, dizzy and feel faint
- I get hot flashes and start to sweat
- my breathing is rapid and shallow
- I am so incredibly scared and absolutely sure I am about to die
- I can barely decipher anything you are saying
- you likely have no idea that I am having a panic attack as I am just staring blankly at you and trying to smile
- the attack will likely last only 5-10 minutes, but it will affect me for hours – and I will be so afraid of suffering another one that I may retreat to a safe place for the rest of the day
Here is the most important part of what I have shared … I have had hundreds of panic attacks in my life. There are times in my life when I suffered through 8-10 a day. And each time – during each episode - I was absolutely sure I was going to die. It did not matter if I just survived a panic attack 5 times earlier that day … I was absolutely sure that the 6th one was going to kill me. Logic and reason are generally not present during these attacks … and that is why we need our loved ones to guide us through these miserable moments.
Oh wait … here is another important aspect of panic that is a bit of a catch-22 and very important to note … one panic attack typically begets more panic attacks. After surviving an unprovoked panic attack, the person is so afraid to experience another one that that fear helps to initiate even more attacks. Without help, they can spiral out of control. So …
How to help your friend through a panic attack.
You can help. You are the greatest help there is. And it is so easy. Truly. These tips may not be true for everyone, but they are a great start and certainly can’t hurt. Here are some ways you can help your friend get through this …
- Help them to feel safe. This is paramount. Your friend feels like they are about to die. No matter how far-fetched this is, it is their reality in those moments. Show them you are there for them. Look into their eyes. Be as present with them as you possibly can. Knowing someone is right there to watch over us or to call 911 means everything. This can also be done by phone. Keep the conversation going and let them know you are not going to hang up … and that if need be, you will be right over.
- Touch them somehow. Maybe grab their hand. Touching will ground them in the present and help them to feel safe. I prefer people to grab my arm fairly tight so that I truly know they are there. Avoid hugs or anything restrictive. Give them breathing room.
- Talk about mundane things. Do not talk about the panic attack. Do not talk about anything that might induce more panic. For instance, if you talk to me about my son, you may think that is a great idea as he brings me much joy … but talking about him will increase my panic, as I am thinking I am dying and I am scared to leave him. But if you talk to me about a television show you just watched or the weather or some Legos you just saw ( I love me some Legos) then you are engaging me in a topic that is simple enough to attempt to focus on and that does not increase my anxiety.
- Tell them to give in to it. Help them breathe through it. The worst thing one can do in a panic situation is to push hard against having one. This will only increase the intensity of the attack. Help them understand that this will pass and all will be well. (This sounds like it goes against my ‘don’t talk about the panic attack’ admonition, but this can be done very subtly.) Breathe deeply with them.
- Offer some water to drink. Water is basically good for whatever ails you. It is soothing and healthy. And often times, just concentrating on drinking it is enough to divert attention from the panic itself.
- Get them medical attention if they feel they need it. Chances are, just knowing that you are able and willing to get them to a hospital is enough to sooth their fears. We are scared beyond reason. We need to know/believe that we have access to life-saving measures. Gently let them know that you will call 911 or drive them to the nearest hospital if needed.
- Check in with them after the episode. Give them a call. Drop by for a visit. Let them know you continue to be there for them. Show them they are safe and not alone. Tell them you will keep your phone right by you if they need you. Let them know they can call anytime.
- No guilt. No shame. No inconvenience.Clearly you are a great friend who wants what is best for your loved one. So perhaps this advice goes without saying. Your friend is going to feel embarrassed, ashamed, and sad for inconveniencing you. They have made the attack way bigger in their mind than it really was. Show them it was no big deal. Move past it quickly and with a smile. If they know it is no big deal to share these experiences with others, they will be much less likely to isolate themselves. Isolation can lead to deep depression, self-medicating and possibly even suicide.
And there it is. Easy peasy. Basically, just be there. Love them. Support them. It will pass.
Now, I may never be fully cured of my panic attacks … but I am learning to effectively manage them. It is an on-going process. Some days and months are better than others. Heck, some years are better than others. I have gone year long stretches without panic attacks … only to get hit hard by them for a week solid. They are exhausting … and scary … and they suck real bad. But I am learning to hold hands with my anxiety/panic … to allow it into my life rather than push hard against it. (I will return to that topic in a future post … with some unsolicited advice for the beautiful people in the world who need some help in dealing with their own intense panic.)
An on-going theme of my life and this blog is COMMUNITY. We are all in this together. We all have some deep and serious shit to wade through. And we are all the best help there is for one another. Helping you to understand Panic Disorder is certainly a bit self-serving on my part, as a more informed community is quite helpful to me personally. But let’s face it, I am so not alone (sadly) and there are many people who can benefit from your knowledge of such things. Thank you for reading. Thank you for helping your friends/loved ones.
And to those who suffer from anxiety/panic and all manner of other mental issues (basically all of you) … know this: You are strong. Way stronger than you believe. You are loved and supported. Again, way more loved and supported than you believe. Don’t hide. You need me. I need you. We will all get through this together. It will work itself out. And you will shine bright.