I'm an anxious person, but I'm not sure if I've ever had a a panic attack. My roommate and BFF assures me that I have —there was one time after my mom's death I was so upset that I couldn't catch my breath. I give her so much friendship credit, because it is hard to know how to help someone through a panic attack (if that's really what I was experiencing).
I don't want to minimize anyone else's larger or more regularly present panic attacks. If I were around a partner or friend or person who was having a panic attack, I don't think I would know what to do.
Because there are a lot of misconceptions about what a panic attack really is, I spoke to Dr. Gary Brown, a licensed psychotherapist is Los Angeles, about what makes a panic attack a panic attack, and how you can help a partner through one — whether you are in person with them, or across the country on FaceTime. Here's what he shared with me.
What Is A Panic Attack?
While most of us experience some anxiety in our lives, not all of us experience panic attacks, says Dr. Brown. "Anxiety is simply a reflection of fears that we may have about certain situations or people," he explains. "When our anxiety is at a low to moderate level, we can usually find ways to cope with it."
The thing that makes a panic attack different than other anxiety is that it "is what happens when our own anxiety overwhelms our ability to function," says Dr. Brown. Panic attacks are intense, scary, and often appear suddenly. "You may never know when you are going to have one," adds Dr. Brown.
Some of the physical symptoms of a panic attack include: tachycardia (rapid heart rate), rapid breathing, feeling dizzy, weak, or faint, feeling that you have lost complete control during the attack, fears of dying (such as having a heart attack), and profuse sweating, according to Dr. Brown.
Dr. Brown also explained that you might not even know why you're having the panic attack, but if you'd had one before, you likely fear having another one. I certainly fear having another episode like the one I mentioned earlier, when I couldn't breathe. Panic attacks are very scary, and watching someone is equally terrifying.
What Can You Do For Your Partner If They Are Having A Panic Attack?
I specifically remember my friend and brother not freaking out when I had my own panic attack. Instead, they were incredibly comforting and took care to not add stress to the equation, but it can be hard to remain calm when a person you love is pretty much falling apart.
Whether you are in person or on the phone, "the very first thing you can do is to remain calm while your partner is having a panic attack," says Dr. Brown. "Do not judge or criticize them in any way." Panic attacks are embarrassing, so don't make your partner feel any more shameful about it.
It's also important that you make sure "that they are in a physically safe environment," adds Dr. Brown. "If they are not, immediately get them away from whatever the immediate threat may be." Of course this is tricky if you are on the phone, but see if you can get them to share where exactly they are.
What Can You Do To Help Your Partner Slow Their Breathing?
"If you can, help them slow down their breathing," explains Dr. Brown. "Suggest that they shorten their inhales, as taking in too much oxygen will only intensify and prolong their panic attack." He adds that trying to get them to focus on exhaling more deeply can help.
There are also techniques that will help your partner slow their breathing, "suggest that they cup their hands tightly over their nose and mouth," says Dr. Brown. "You want to form a seal on this part of their face so that they reduce the amount of oxygen they are breathing in, and instead increase the amount of CO2 they take in. Increasing their CO2 intake is the key to reducing their immediate symptoms." The other way to do this is to have them use a small (lunch-size) paper bag and have them breathe into it. (You've probably seen this in movies, and yes, it works.)
If that's not effective, "have them count down from 100," says Dr. Brown. "This can help them shift their focus away from their feelings of intense anxiety. Reassure them that you are going to stay with them until it is over."
What Can You Do If You Aren't There In Person?
You feel helpless if you are trying to comfort a partner and you're not in the same place as them. "Other than actually handing them a bag, you can still support your partner remotely, using your phone, FaceTime, or Skype," confirms Dr. Brown. "Being there to physically comfort them with a hug would certainly be ideal, but there is much you can do to help [on the phone]." You can promise to stay with your partner on the phone, walk them through proper breathing techniques, and listen to their concerns.
Additionally, you can learn more about anxiety and panic attacks, especially if your partner has them consistently. "Understand that your partner truly has no way to know if and when they will always experience a panic attack," says Dr. Brown. Bringing the topic up with them is a way of showing them you are there for them and you care.
But an important safety note: "Panic attacks can feel like you are having a heart attack," says Dr. Brown. "If you aren't sure if this is a panic attack or a heart attack and this is the first time they are having intensely rapid heart rate, doctors recommend that you immediately go to your local emergency department."