If you’ve ever witnessed someone having a panic attack, you know it’s terrifying.
The other day I was walking by a girl obviously having a panic
attack as she sat on the ground in the middle of campus crying hysterically and hyperventilating. There were all these people standing around her as she cried and gasped for air. I’ll let you know first hand that standing around someone having a panic attack is the worst idea. I sat down next to her and told her to cover her ears. Then, I started screaming at them: “What the hell are you all doing watching this girl fall apart?! Was there nothing good on T.V.?!” They all dispersed. I sat there and began to help her the best way I could.
While I yelled at them, I understand that witnessing someone having a panic attack is scary for all parties involved in a way that is hard to explain in words. It’s even scarier because nobody is sure what they should be doing. Part of the reason for this is that nobody likes to talk about having panic attacks and people who don’t know what it’s like to endure one (and have nobody close to them who has them) don’t have the resources to help.
I’m here to bridge that gap.
I’ll start by saying everyone is different, nobody responds the same way. I usually can’t breathe, I hyperventilate, I cry, I fall into myself in a dark and scary way. I don’t like to be touched, unless you are my boyfriend for some odd reason, and I can’t explain what is going on. I can’t talk. That’s the worst part. I can’t explain what is going on and what I’m feeling, I’m petrified that I’m going to die but nobody can understand why. I can’t even understand why. But in teaching my boyfriend in the best ways to help me in these vulnerable states, I learned a lot in how to help others. So, here is my advice for those who want to help but aren’t sure how.
1. Introduce yourself and ask them for their name.
Asking for their name first means you should use their name as much as you can when you are talking to them. You immediately go from being a stranger to a friend. Giving your name and a little about you will make them feel more comfortable in their current state because they no longer are as vulnerable.
Equally as important, if you suffer from panic attacks or mental illness, now is the time to put it out there. People who struggle with mental illness often feel isolated and alone in their struggle. If you struggle or know someone who does, let the person know. This will make them feel like they are in safe and understanding hands and make them more willing to allow you to help.
2. Ask if they want help.
It’s important to ask if someone wants help because sometimes people are more embarrassed if someone is witnessing them in such a vulnerable state. The easiest way to ask this is, “Are you okay? Is there something I can do to help?” If they say yes, move on to the later steps. If they say no, walk away but keep within a good eye distance. Some people start by having an emotional breakdown that turns into a panic attack. But if they forcefully say no, walk away and don’t try and help them. People know their limits, you have to trust that.
3. Don’t assume that they are having a panic attack.
While some people are obviously having a panic attack, there are other mental health conditions that cause people to have a breakdown. I am bipolar manic depressive, meaning sometimes I cry uncontrollably for some unknown reason. Don’t assume I’m having a panic attack because they are totally different things and require different responses. Generally, if someone is having a hard time breathing, they need help, so it’s never a bad idea to stop and make sure they’re okay.
4. Don’t make them feel like you are gawking.
Not gawking or being in awe is a hard one for many people to do. But it’s actually quite simple: pretend they are your best friend for the next ten to twenty minutes. Just treating them how you would treat your best friend, hopefully with compassion and care, will make them feel comfortable.
“Everyone is different, nobody responds the same way.”
5. Ask them before doing ANYTHING.
This is important for many reasons. While some of us can’t speak, we can respond to outside stimulus; meaning if you ask us a question we will shake or nod our heads. Ask if it’s okay if you touch them, if it’s okay if you sit down, if it’s alright if you talk to them. Personally, I don’t like to be talked to. But the young lady I helped the other day wanted to be talked to. So I distracted her. Sometimes that’s enough. But sometimes it isn’t. Some people don’t like to be touched or talked to (like me) and just really want someone to sit with them or pull them out of an area where they are ‘on display.’
6. Once they are okay, see if you can walk them to where they are going and don’t talk about what just happened.
Panic attacks are triggered for unknown reasons most of the time, which means they can come back at any time. Some people are plagued by having multiple ones. I tend to have them in groups so walking with someone to wherever they are going and talking about something not related will make them focus on something else, meaning the panic attack is less likely to occur again in that time frame.
Some people may just want to leave and not have you walk with them – don’t take this as an insult. We are always so thankful to people that help us, but sometimes we want to go on with our day. Even if you don’t get a thank you, know that you are helping us and we appreciate it.
7. If at any point they tell you to go, you need to go.
Helping someone really does mean helping them on their terms and to the amount at which they feel comfortable. If someone is accepting help and then randomly stop accepting it, you need to listen to them. This goes back to the fact that the experience of having a panic attack is totally different for everyone.
While I say these tips are for people having a panic attack, they really work anywhere where someone is struggling.
We are all struggling and dealing with something, whether it’s physiological or mental is irrelevant. Let’s help each other out and bring a little more light into the world, what’s the worst that can happen?