What is a panic attack like? Well, if you’ve ever experienced one, you know all too well what it is like. You’ll never forget, as a matter of fact. The problem, however, is accurately conveying this to someone who has never had a panic attack. True, the symptoms that are experienced can be listed and it can be explained in general terms, but to truly convey the intensity of the experience is more or less impossible. There is just nothing to compare it too. Perhaps if the person has survived a skydiving accident or lion attack, they could relate.

To someone on the “outside” there is a tendency to think the panic attack sufferer is being a bit silly or over reacting. Some have even been accused of faking it for attention. They just don’t see how someone can be freaking out so much when there is clearly no reason for it. We all stress a little here and there, after all.

Well, for those of us who have anxiety or panic attacks, other’s lack of understanding can greatly compound our problem. It can make us feel even more alone when we can least afford such feelings. It can also lead to feelings of resentment towards our loved ones who we would hope should be there for us.

Truly, it is not their fault. As I stated earlier, it is simply not possible for them to understand the degree of fear and panic we experience. They also don’t have any way to relate to the fact that we know there isn’t usually any “logical” reason for the sensations we experience, we just know we are experiencing them and they are so overwhelming we fear we might even die from the fear itself; Scare ourselves to death, as it were.

So, for those who have loved ones, co-workers, or just acquaintances who experience panic or anxiety attacks, the following is for you.

If someone is having a panic attack, probably the most important thing you can do is listen. What I mean is that the person will likely want help, but may be clueless as to what kind of help they want. They may want you to distract them with casual conversation, or maybe get them a glass of water. Whatever it is, just let them know you want to help if you can. Often times just knowing they are not alone is all the help they need.

Another important point is that you should be patient with them. It is important to let them know you are there for them, but realize that a person experiencing a panic attack is, well, panicking. They may want to sit or lay down, but it is just as likely that they will feel an overwhelming urge to jump up and pace the floor or even run out of the room. You need to realize that they may not act in a rational manner. You don’t have to understand why, you just need to understand that it is a very frightening experience for them and rational thinking will be difficult if not impossible.

Appropriate touch can be very helpful. If you have a relationship with the person in which touching is an acceptable interaction, a gentle touch and eye contact can be reassuring. One thing to consider, though, is that an anxiety attack is a dynamic thing. They may want you to touch them and then, seconds later, demand that you stop touching them…or vice-versa. This is nothing personal and shouldn’t be taken as such. They may not be capable of calm and polite interaction so be forgiving if they are short with you. They will likely be apologizing in a matter of minutes anyway, so just help them get through it. It will be much appreciated.

One major thing to remember is that you need to stay calm yourself. If you fly off the handle, become frustrated, or run around screaming “call an ambulance!” you are certainly going to make things much worse. Let them know you understand the severity of what they are going through, while projecting a calm demeanor. Avoid patronizing them with a “there, there, now” attitude. Just be calm and understanding.

A panic attack is a terrifying thing. If one of your friends coworkers or loved ones experiences them, remember that you can be in a position to be a great comfort to them if you just understand that what they are going through is far more intense that you can likely imagine.

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