Witnessing an Anxiety Attack
I talked in my last post about what an anxiety attack might look like and how terrifying they are for the person having it.
I want to recognize that anxiety attacks are terrifying to anyone witnessing them too. A friend of mine said he thought I was dying during them. He said he felt helpless, useless, and like he was making it worse. He didn’t know what to do and that scared him.
The needs of the person will be different depending on both their personality and the reason for the anxiety attack, but here’s some general tips:
1. Be gentle.
Anxiety attacks often heighten the senses and make everything seem louder, faster, and brighter than it actually is. Talk softly, move slowly. The less we have to process, the better.
2. Narrate what you’re doing.
Again, no sudden movements. The person may be disassociating, or have their eyes closed. It’s a good idea to remind them who you are and where they are, even if they aren’t disassociating. It gives the person a warning each time you move and gives them something to focus on: you.
3. Ask permission.
Specifically before touching them. I usually have my eyes closed, so if you touch me, I won't see you coming and will freak out. Again, narrate what you’re doing. But in the case of touching, always ask. Even if the person can't respond verbally, they often can nonverbally. They may nod or shake their head, tense up, or lean away from you. Listen to their body language.
4. Validate their feelings.
Never tell a person having an anxiety attack to calm down. Trust me, we would if we could. Reminding them that you understand they’re overwhelmed, scared, anxious, etc. helps us remember that you are there to help.
5. Do your best to make them feel safe.
This is tailored to the individual. A friend of mine likes to be told “there’s no bear” to remind her she’s not in any real danger. She also likes to be sung to or have someone pray with her. I like to be wrapped in a blanket and hold something soft. Phrases like “I'm right here,” “we’re going to get through this,” and “you’re safe, I’ve got you” are also great. Anything you can do to remind the person that they are physically safe and not alone is helpful.
6. Talk to the person about their anxiety attacks.
Often, people know what does and doesn’t help them. If you’ve been with someone during an attack, ask them what you can do should it happen again. They might have a specific phrase (like “there’s no bear) or a comfort item (I have a stuffed rabbit, no shame). They also might have medication like Xanax or Ativan and may not be able to tell you where it is in the moment.
7. Take care of yourself.
This isn’t talked about enough. If you panic, they’ll panic more. So, take some deep breaths and remind yourself the person is safe. Both of you are safe. Even though this looks and feels like an emergency, you can take it slow.
Just do your best. We don’t expect you to be perfect, and even if you don’t know what you’re doing, we’ll appreciate the effort. It’s much better to be with someone trying to help than no one at all.