Having a panic attack is horrible when you are surrounded by people who understand and are doing the right thing, but eight million times worse when you are with strangers, or trying to explain to someone what is happening while simultaneously feeling like you are dying.
Sometimes, when I have a panic attack I hyperventilate. This attracts a lot of attention if I am in public, because I sound like a dying seal. My hands and feet will go numb from lack of oxygen and I immediately need to be in an open space. Hyperventilating in public for me also brings with it the really unpleased thoughts that I will simultaneously never be able to stop and am also doing it subconsciously on purpose and can stop.
If you see someone hyperventilating in public, give them space. Ensure others give them space. Reassure them that it is ok and it won’t last forever. Breath Deeply and have them try to copy your breathing. If people crowd around, ask them very calmly to give you and the person space, and explain very soothingly (because bystanders are prone to get very excitable in emergencies, or what they think is an emergency) that everything is absolutely fine and you do not need help, although a bottle of water would be nice.
Also, a side note, but if you are somewhere cold, keeping the person who is having a panic attack warm can be really important. Shock changes the temperature of your body and I have often developed hypothermia (when I say often there is like, two main times but I have needed to go to hospital for both) after having a panic attack when it’s really cold.
Panic attacks don’t simply mean hyperventilating, although that is probably one of the most common signs. Mostly, when I experience I panic attack I will have a sense of impending doom that is so strong it is physically painful. I can only describe it as the same feeling you feel when you watch a scary movie and you think you’re home alone but you hear someone upstairs. My heart will start beating really fast, I will start trembling (particularly my hands, they will look like I have a tremor). I usually feel really dizzy and cold.
Excusing myself and going to a bathroom can really help. There is something incredibly soothing about tiles that can really help me when I feel like this, I have no idea why. being outside is also really beneficial, as fresh air helps calm me down. I focus on my breathing and picture my anxiety as a colour inside of me, not trying to get rid of it but recognising that it is there and sitting with it. When the panic begins to ease off I usually read really trashy celebrity gossip, or google really boring home improvement questions, like how to put up floating shelves. Something about the act of reading grounds me, and it being something I don’t need to concentrate on or care about helps the panic go away.
If someone is having a panic attack, attempt to act completely normal. Talk in a soothing, low, slow voice. Sometimes, touching, such as back rubbing is good, sometimes it really isn’t. Ask. Patience is key. Keep the person warm (but not too warm) and in a preferably quiet, private place. If you know the panic attack is being brought on by a certain situation, like being in a crowd or a confined space, attempt to move them out of it, if at all possible. Remind them that it is ok and it will pass.
If you are the one having a panic attack, or feel like you are about to, coming up with an excuse to leave a situation can make the impeding panic even worse. Telling people that your contact is about to come out, or you have something in your eye and you need to find a bathroom works well- if necessary shout it as you run away. variations are that you think you left your phone/ purse/ credit card somewhere, you really need to go to the bathroom, you’ve just seen someone you need to talk to/thank/ say hello to walk by/ walk away, you think you have an upset stomach, suddenly remembered an appointment etc.
Ground yourself by noticing six things (of each) you can see, hear, smell, & taste. Remind yourself that it is a feeling and it will pass. Call your mum/ partner/ friend and tell them that you are having a panic attack and get them to talk you through it. Doing some mindfulness (using an app like headspace) can really help too.
If panic attacks are a regular thing, go to your doctor and explain what is happening (if you haven’t already). They should never stop you from living the life you want to lead, and although it can take a while it is possible to recover from them, and do things that would lead you to have a panic attack in the past again. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is brilliant for giving you the skills to deal with panic attacks (and anxiety in general) and going to a doctor can help you get referred to a therapist. Having a medical professional understand what you are dealing with is also really useful for university, school and the workplace. As general understanding about panic disorders increases, there are loads of ways to making education or the workplace more manageable, and your doctor can help organise these supports.
I still suffer from panic attacks, but they definitely have gotten better due to a combination of medication and CBT skills. Recently, my taxi driver after a night out told me that he had suffered from extreme panic attacks, but after a lot of difficult work with a therapist and experienced using coping skills, he’d recovered and hadn’t suffered from a panic attack in years.
While googling ‘panic attack stock image’ to find a header for this blog, I stumbled across these gems.