Anxiety and panic attacks: how to be a supportive friend and whānau
Anxiety is a common condition and it’s normal to experience some anxiety during stressful situations. When anxiety starts to impact our ability to function, or makes us feel unable to cope, or the worry is excessive, it may be time to seek help.
One common way anxiety can manifest is as panic attacks. Panic attacks are feelings of severe anxiety that typically last between one to ten minutes. The onset and end are often quite sudden. During a panic attack, people often feel that they are about to die or lose control. They may experience physical symptoms like a racing heart or inability to breathe. Panic attacks are not life threatening, but they can feel that way and be very scary for those experiencing them.
As friends and family/whānau of someone experiencing panic, your support can make a real difference. You can act as a calming influence. Help by being accepting and non‐judgmental. Keep inviting them to take part in activities. Be a role model in how you relax and find healthy ways to have fun yourself. Help them identify ways that help them self‐soothe. Focus on their strengths and let them know you believe in them.
What NOT to say or do:
1. “I know how you feel, I get nervous too, I just take a deep breath and then I’m fine.”
You may know what it’s like to be anxious, but the feelings are a lot stronger during a panic attack. It’s a lot harder to deal with a panic attack than normal, everyday nervousness. People in the throes of panic make their symptoms worse by breathing too fast, too shallowly. People with panic disorder feel incredibly vulnerable. But if they have someone to lean on, it can help them avoid panic attacks. Your reassuring words and actions can help them conquer the fear of something terrible happening.
2. Don't pressure them.
It's understandable to want to help them face their fears or find practical solutions, but it can be very distressing for someone to feel they're being forced into situations before they feel ready. This could make their anxiety worse. Try to remember that being unable to control their worries is part of having anxiety, and they aren't choosing how they feel. It's really important to be patient and take things at a pace that feels okay for them.
What to say or do:
1. Just talking about what they’re experiencing can help them manage their symptoms more effectively, if they have a sympathetic ear. Ask about their experience. “I’m here for you, do you want to talk about what’s triggered it?” They shouldn’t be forced to talk about it before they are ready. You can say, “I’m here when you’re ready to talk about it.”
2. If they don’t want to talk yet, ask, “How can I help?” or, “What do you usually find helpful?” By asking them what they need or how you can help, you can support them to feel more in control themselves.
3. If they say yes and talk about their worries, listen sympathetically. You can say, “That sounds really hard, I’m sorry you’re feeling that way.” Your soothing presence can help make it more manageable.
4. Encourage them to breathe slowly and deeply – it can help to do the breathing with them, and do something repetitive they can focus on, such as counting out loud, or asking them to watch while you gently raise your arm up and down. Encourage them to stamp their feet on the spot. Encourage them to sit somewhere quietly where they can focus on their breath until they feel better. Breathing can help to regain mental and emotional control when panic starts to take hold. This won’t end the panic attack immediately but it can halt its progress.
5. People with panic shouldn’t dwell on their negative thoughts. This can be true before the onset of an attack as well. Interesting conversations and shared activities can keep panic away. Even when an attack is occurring, its intensity can be reduced if the person’s mind can be diverted to other things. This way, the person’s attention can shift and their focus becomes engaged more easily.
You can call our 24/7 free Anxiety Helpline (0800 236 4389) to learn other ways to support a dear one going through an anxiety episode or panic attack. You can also encourage them to call us themselves. We can take them through breathing and relaxation exercises that are really effective in minimising feelings of anxiety and panic, and discuss practical strategies to apply whenever anxiety and panic start to feel overwhelming.