“A sudden overwhelming feeling of acute and disabling anxiety.”
That’s how the dictionary describes a panic attack. To those who don’t encounter anxiety or panic attacks in their everyday life, there might be some surprising words in there. Overwhelming. Disabling. A little strong right? But for those who suffer from them on a regular basis, these words might not go far enough. A panic attack is overwhelming and it is disabling and everyone reacts differently to them. At the end of the day, a panic attack is when our threat system is triggered in the old part of our brains – the limbic system. Back when we were cavemen (and women), this is the part that kept us alive and ensured the survival of the species. It’s a big reason that we as humans still exist today and didn’t follow the dodo into extinction. But the problem is it still thinks it’s saving us from sabre-tooth tigers, when in reality all we’re really doing is going for brunch.
The 3 F’s
When it comes to our threat systems being triggered, most people will have heard of “fight or flight” but the reality is there is usually a third option, “freeze”. For someone experiencing a panic attack, they usually fall into one of those three categories. Some will mentally and physically run a mile. It doesn’t feel safe where they are right now and they just need to get out. Others will stay and fight. They might lash out verbally or even physically sometimes, they might feel that they are fighting to make their space safe again. The third group, the “freeze” group, will be stuck, rooted to the spot. They might feel like they can’t move a muscle, their brain is telling them that if they stay right there, they will be safe.
Which One Am I?
Now if you are thinking, “I’m definitely a [Freeze/Flight/Fight] (delete as appropriate)” then I’m sorry to tell you it doesn’t really work like that. This isn’t your horoscope, there’s no online test you can do based on your popular TV knowledge and you don’t get to pick. The honest truth is we have elements of all three and whilst we might react in one way more often than others, when given a threat situation we haven’t encountered before we could react in any of these ways or even a mixture of all three. Personally, I know I’ve experienced all three at different points in time but tend to lean more towards the flight. When I’m in a situation that makes me panic, public speaking for example, I get this tunnel vision where all I can see and think about is where the nearest exit is and how quickly I can get there.
Sabre-Tooth Tiger or Just a Stage?
OK, so now we have established how we react to panic attacks, the next step is to stop it right? You just tell this old part of your brain that you’re just getting up on stage to talk to some folk, there’s no ravenous beast waiting to maul you, surely that’s easy enough? Oh if only it were. You see when a panic attack starts, your rational thinking evaporates. I’m not talking slowly slipping away like Jack and Rose on the Titanic (why didn’t he just get on the plank of wood with her?!), no this is more like putting on the one ring (Middle Earth represent). One second it’s there, the next it’s disappeared. When you are in that panic state, your thoughts become overwhelmed with the threat. It can feel impossible to simply “think” your way out of it. The problem is, the limbic part of the brain can’t determine between a physical threat and a mental one, all it sees is danger and it’s flailing to protect you. It overrides the rational part of our brain, the frontal lobe, and won’t let it in. It’s the reason why telling someone who is panicking to “calm down” is a worthless endeavour. Trust me, if they could, they would, but in that moment, they can’t see being “calm” as a viable option because their brain is trying to tell them that there is every reason to panic.
What Can You Do?
If you are with someone who is having a panic attack, there are many ways to help, and many ways to make it worse, and while everyone is different, there are a few do’s and don’ts you can follow which should help:
- DO ensure they have space – When you are having a panic attack, the last thing you want is to feel crowded out so if there are people around, try to make sure they don’t all flock to the person panicking. When they look around, it’s important that they can see free air. They don’t want their struggle to become the centre of attention.
- DO encourage them to breathe – One of the symptoms and reactions to panic is to quicken your breathing or forget to breathe at all, so try to help them control their breathing. Offer to breathe with them, trying to slow it down while you do.
- DO let them know they are safe – Calmly telling someone that they are safe while they are panicking and trying to rationally explain why they are safe can be a great help. Just because they can’t make themselves think rationally, doesn’t mean that you can’t help guide them back towards rationality. Just remember to do this very gently and calmly.
- DO be careful to avoid making it worse – Everyone reacts differently to a panic attack and while a hug may help some people, it could easily make it worse for others. Ask if it’s OK before touching someone who is panicking – “Do you need a hug?” is easier than guessing.
- DO remind them that they are loved – When in full panic mode, this can be a very tough thing to remember, but can also be a great way to break the cycle. However they don’t need to be loved romantically, this isn’t the time to try to hook up. They just need to be loved platonically for who they are, warts and all.
- DON’T freak out – If you are running around frantically like a headless chicken, you are just going to feed the panic. Someone who is panicking needs to be surrounded by calm to pull out of it, they will pick up on your energy through the way you act and speak.
- DON’T tell them to calm down – Yes I mentioned it before but it is one of the first things people say when they encounter someone panicking and it really doesn’t work. It’s like if you have hay fever and I told you to stop sneezing. It just doesn’t work that way.
- DON’T make promises you can’t keep – While it may help to stop the panic in that instance, making a promise you realistically can’t or won’t keep will make things worse when you don’t come through for them. For example, don’t promise you’ll always be there when this happens or that you can fix this. It’s unrealistic and we don’t need fixing, just understanding.
- DON’T be offended if your help is refused in favour of others – Remember, there is no rational thinking here. Just because your partner’s friend is better at helping with this than you are, it doesn’t mean they love you any less, it’s all situational here.
- DON’T make fun of them – You would think this would be fairly obvious. But to put it bluntly, if you were hit by a bus, would you want me to point and laugh or would you want me to help? This is no different.
This is not an exhaustive list and remember, everyone deals with panic attacks differently, so finally one big DO. After the panic attack has resolved, DO offer to talk about how you can help better in future. If you are close, then the chances are that you will be around for a future incident, so if you can talk about what works and what doesn’t in advance, you will be much better positioned to help.
To Those Who Panic
I do intend to talk about my experiences more and some of the ways I have tried to deal with my anxiety and panic attacks, but today I felt that it was more important to address how people react to our struggles first. If we can reduce the stigma around anxiety and panic then I hope we can find it easier to help ourselves with the support of those around us. So for now my message is simple:
You are loved, you’re important and you matter, while it may feel like life throws us more curveballs than anyone else, that gives us more opportunities to hit them out of the park. Celebrate the wins and don’t beat yourself up on the losses. There is always next time.
If you found this useful, please check out the hill analogy in my last piece Anxiety, It’s Everywhere.
If you are in NZ and experiencing anxiety or depression, lifeline is a wonderful organisation where you can get help 24/7.
Depression.org.nz also has some great resources for both depression and anxiety.
Many workplaces can offer support through services such as EAP. If you are unsure what support your workplace can give you, there are usually ways to find out without talking to anybody but if you feel comfortable with it, speak to your employer.
Disclaimer: The above post is not my professional opinion, it is merely just my own experience. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, please seek help from a professional.