A panic attack can be frightening for the person going through it, and the experience isn’t much easier for those who see it happen to a loved one. A panic attack is a sudden and sharp rise in fear or anxiety accompanied by physical symptoms, such as an increased heart rate and shortness of breath.
If you don’t understand what it’s like to experience a panic attack, it may be hard to lend a hand or even feel compassion for an anxious family member who is dealing with one. Read on to learn about the physical symptoms that accompany an attack and preventive measures you can utilize to help others cope.
The Bodily Effects of Panic Attacks
The body’s fight-or-flight response is the culprit behind the intense physical symptoms of a panic attack. Adrenaline floods into the bloodstream in reaction to a perceived threat (even when there is no imminent danger) and puts the body on high alert. Breathing becomes fast and shallow, the heartbeat quickens, and the senses sharpen. All of these changes happen instantly, which gives the body energy to confront a dangerous situation or get out of harm’s way.
It’s not clear what causes panic attacks, but they might develop in association with major life changes, traumatic events, and lifestyle stressors. They can strike at any time — on an airplane, in the middle of a business meeting, or at a party. The experience of a panic attack can be extremely frightening. People who have these attacks often feel as if they are losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.
While these episodes of extreme fear can last 20 to 30 minutes, they often happen without warning. Supporting a loved one through a panic attack starts with being able to recognize the physical signs, such as:
- Chest pain
- Blurred vision
- Upset stomach
- Loss of appetite
- Chills or hot flashes
- Muscle aches
- Rapid heart rate
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Numbness in extremities
Panic attacks can have increasingly disruptive effects on a person’s life. These may include:
- Social withdrawal
- Poor work performance
- Increased risk of suicidal tendencies
- Decreased quality of interpersonal relationships
It’s common to feel fatigued or shaken by a panic attack for minutes or hours after the episode is over. Some individuals may have just one panic attack in their lifetime. Others have recurrent attacks and live in persistent fear of experiencing more. This condition is known as panic disorder. To ease and minimize symptoms of the disorder, people might change their behavior or lifestyle in an attempt to avoid situations or locations that trigger anxiety.
Watching a friend, family member, or spouse experience a panic attack may make you feel helpless. Fortunately, there are numerous preventive measures you can recommend to a loved one who’s struggling with panic. Here are a few:
- Deep breathing: Hyperventilation during a panic attack often causes other symptoms, such as light-headedness and tightness of the chest. Deep-breathing techniques relax the mind and body and should bring the attack under control by reducing the severity of symptoms. They can also help distract from negative thoughts. When you’re helping someone through a panic attack, tell the person to take long, deep breaths by inhaling and exhaling to the count of four seconds. He or she should breathe deeply from the abdomen and fill the lungs slowly and steadily.
- Good social support: Symptoms of anxiety may become worse when a person feels isolated. Encourage your loved one to regularly reach out to those who care about him or her.
- Relaxation techniques: Panic attacks can make individuals feel detached from reality. Activities such as meditation and yoga help reground a person and direct his or her focus away from sources of stress. These techniques also strengthen the body’s relaxation response. When practiced regularly, they can give a sense of control, calm, and focus, which may help mitigate panic symptoms.
- Regular exercise: Physical activity is a natural anxiety reliever. It releases hormones called endorphins that help relax the body and improve the mood. Rhythmic, aerobic exercises, such as walking, dancing, or swimming, can be especially effective.
- Professional help: Encourage loved ones to get medical or psychological support if needed. A psychotherapist can help them learn more about panic attacks and how to manage them. Support groups might also be beneficial and allow members to draw strength and encouragement from others who face the same challenges.
Remember to be patient and calm when assisting a loved one who’s dealing with a panic attack. Reassure the person that there’s no reason to be afraid or ashamed and that the feeling will pass. To learn more about the physical symptoms of panic attacks, as well as effective coping strategies, see the accompanying infographic.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
Author bio: Ram Pardeshi, MD, is a talented and compassionate psychiatrist. He is Medical Director at Mindful Urgent Care, a premier psychiatry practice based in New York. Dr. Pardeshi is passionate about helping patients suffering from mental illness.
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