Do you know someone who sometimes has sudden attacks of anxiety and overwhelming fear that last for several minutes? Maybe their heart pounds, or they complain about sweat, and they may feel like they can’t breathe or think.
Do these attacks happen unpredictably with no trigger, causing you or them to worry about the possibility of having another one at any time?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in the United States, 1.6% of the adult population, which is more than three million people, will have panic disorder at some time in their lives. They also report that the disorder impacts 2.4 million people in our country each year.
Panic attacks are most often characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. During a panic attack, it is common for a person to also have a strong physical reaction.
Some will say that it may feel like having a heart attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time and the potential of having one can leave those with panic disorders in constant anxiety worrying when the next will happen. If you currently have a friend going through a panic attack, we recommend you click here to jump to the information on what to do during a panic attack.
After a panic attack, some people may become discouraged and ashamed because they cannot carry out normal routines like going to school or work, going to the grocery store, or driving.
Panic attacks are not classified as a mental health disorder themselves; instead they are classified as symptoms that occur with other mental disorders. Often, we think that when it comes to panic or anxiety that it is one-size-fits-all but that is not the case.
There are two main types of panic attacks that can occur if you have the disorder.
Panic attacks themselves usually do not last very long. Most are over within an hour of starting and reach a peak within the first 10 minutes.
Regardless of the type of panic attack, most people will experience typical symptoms of panic or extreme fear. During their panic attack, people may experience:
According to the diagnostic criteria listed in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). The DSM-5 is a source of classification and diagnosis guidelines for mental illnesses that is used across the world. Panic attacks are experienced as a sudden sense of fear and dread, and they are accompanied by at least four other mental, emotional, and physical symptoms.
According to the DSM-5, a person must have recurrent and often unexpected panic attacks and at least one of these attacks needs to be followed by one or more attacks or the fear of more attacks.
This is a disorder that requires a professional diagnosis. This will help rule out other causes of some symptoms like: drug use, medication side effects, other mental disorders such as phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), etc.
Panic disorder often begins in the late teens or early adulthood. More women than men have the disorder. But not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop the disorder.
Having experienced one panic attack is usually a sign that a person can expect to have more. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, can cause significant problems in various areas of life.
A person with panic disorder may experience interference with their everyday life and activities due to panic attacks. For example, they may spend time worrying about future panic attacks. Many people will also actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Additionally, many people with the disorder deal with loneliness and isolation.
If you want to learn more about panic attacks and the disorder, we suggest you take a look at our panic disorder treatment page.
If someone you know has a panic attack, they are most likely overcome with anxiety and not thinking clearly. There are a few things that you may be able to do to relieve some anxiety and help soothe some of the most pressing symptoms of the attack. We suggest that you:
What you say matters and that is still true even during a panic attack, there are some phrases that are helpful and some that are more hurtful to someone who is experiencing a panic attack. Try to say things such as:
By doing these things you will reduce the anxiety for the person experiencing panic. Remember that this is a very stressful experience both mentally and physically. You also will be helping to prevent the situation from becoming worse. Asserting control in these instances when the person feels there may be a lack of control can help eliminate confusion that takes place and it is important to remember that you are there to offer help at the moment and after.
Many people with panic disorder distance themselves, fearing others won’t understand. They may be embarrassed by their panic attacks or other anxiety symptoms. There are also many myths about the disorder that may contribute to a panic sufferer's feelings of shame.
This means that you may need to remind your loved one, family member, or friend that they are not alone and that while you may not understand their experience exactly, you do understand that they have unique experiences that you wish to be supportive of.
It can also be helpful to encourage them to spend time doing self-care and using strategies that help to combat feelings of loneliness and reduce panic disorder symptoms.
For example, physical exercise for panic disorder can help reduce stress hormones and decrease muscle tension. It may be worthwhile to invite the person to exercise with you or a small group to relieve some of the anxiety. Also, it is important to remember that on average it takes 5 weeks for the brain to produce endorphins as a result of exercising so it will take more than one or two trips to the gym to feel results!
Another way to help someone overcome the feelings of isolation related to panic attacks is to gently encourage them to put themselves out there by getting involved in classes, groups, clubs, or organizations. Providing a supportive and understanding group of people can help eliminate loneliness.
The support network can be made up of professionals, understanding loved ones, and others who relate to the experiences with panic disorder. Trusted friends and family can have a positive impact on your growth. Support can be found through group therapy or even virtually, through online support forums.
Some other tips to keep in mind when you are trying to support someone who experiences panic attacks, either for the first time or the fiftieth time, are:
It is also important that you remember to think of yourself too, during and after your loved one’s panic attack. For example:
At SUN Behavioral, we know that meeting the needs of someone having a panic attack with severe anxiety can be one of the most complicated and tricky experiences to handle. For that reason, we are here to help you navigate the experience that your loved one is going through, and we are here to help them find the care that they need.
How do you ground someone having a panic attack?
The most effective way to ground them, or bring them back to the surrounding reality, is to help them stabilize their breathing. A lot of people will hyperventilate during a panic attack and this can have mental and physical side effects that make it hard to focus or relax. Focus on their breathing first by either doing counted breathing or using a breathing rhythm video or app.
Should you touch someone having a panic attack?
This is entirely dependent on the person. Some will find comfort in being held and rocked during their panic attacks, others may not want to be touched. It is very important that you always ask before simply reaching out or hugging someone experiencing a panic attack. The anxiety may become scared and lash out without realizing it if they cannot see you before you touch them or if they were not expecting to be touched.
How long do panic attacks last?
Everyone is different but in general the worst of a panic attack will peak within 10 minutes. Most panic attacks are no longer than 30 minutes. If you notice that your loved one’s panic attacks are lasting longer, it may be time to seek professional care.
At SUN, we’ve created a caring, healing environment and will be there for every step of your journey to recovery. Please call us today at 859-429-5188 to help you, your family, and your loved one.
Millions of Americans suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other conditions. It can be a lonely, confusing, and emotional experience but you are not alone. If you or someone you love is struggling, SUN Behavioral Health in Erlanger can help.
At SUN Behavioral, our master’s-level clinicians provide care for these specific challenges surrounding mental illness. Struggling with a mental illness is extremely difficult. Not only does it impact an individual on an emotional level, but it can also leave them with several physical complications.