Anxiety disorders affect 18.1% of the U.S. adult population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Sometimes, a person feeling an overwhelming amount of anxiety or stress will experience an anxiety attack.
The signs of an anxiety attack can include:
— An increase in heart rate. Sometimes, you might think you are having a heart attack.
— Feeling very worried or fearful.
— Shortness of breath.
— Tense muscles.
— Not feeling comfortable in your own skin.
— Nausea or a stomachache.
— A dry mouth.
— A sense of detachment from what’s going on around you.
Everyone’s experience of an anxiety attack is a little different, says Annette Nunez, psychotherapist and founder and director of Breakthrough Interventions, a Denver-based therapy practice. The physical feelings of an anxiety attack can be so intense, you may feel as if your body is closing down on you. Conversely, you could feel like you are detached from your body.
Anxiety attacks usually peak at 10 minutes, although they can last as long as a half hour. Most people use the term anxiety attack interchangeably with panic attack, although they are technically a little different. A panic attack can have similar symptoms but is also associated with an overwhelming fear of death or losing control.
Someone experiencing an anxiety attack may be under a lot of stress. Perhaps they have had a major life change, or they tend to worry a lot about the state of the world right now. The person also may be chronically prone to anxiety, perhaps due to family tendencies toward it. Sometimes, it’s not clear why an anxiety attack happens.
An anxiety attack can be scary, but it’s not always bad. The attack can be your body signaling to you that you need help to manage whatever brought it on.
[READ: How to Relieve Anxiety.]
If you’re with someone who is in that moment having an anxiety attack, there are several things you can do to help. They include:
— Remaining calm.
— Encouraging deeper breathing.
— Having the person focus on their surroundings.
— Watching your words.
— Deciding if medical attention is needed.
— Encouraging them to reach out for help.
— Discussing the attack with them afterward.
7 Ways to Help Someone Having an Anxiety Attack
1. Remain calm. If you appear anxious, then that can make the person having the attack feel more anxious. In a calm, supportive tone, let them know you are there for them and ready to help and listen. “A person begins to heal when they are heard,” says licensed counselor Christine Brannan, owner of Relaxing Rhythm Sound Spa in Houston.
2. Encourage deeper breathing. Many times, the shortness of breath associated with anxiety attacks occurs due to shallow breathing. Prompt the person having an attack to breathe in deeply, hold their breath for three counts and then exhale for three counts, Nunez recommends. Do this until the deep breathing appears to help the person having an attack.
3. Have the person focus on their surroundings. One way to help manage an anxiety attack is to get the person to focus on their immediate physical surroundings. For instance, prompt them to focus on an object they can see, such as a plant, for 10 seconds. Another approach is to have the person name five objects they can see or five things they can hear. This activates a different part of the brain, helping to distract them, says Doreen Marshall, vice president of mission engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York. It also can help to have the person make physical contact with an object that is near them, such as putting their hands on a table or a chair.
4. Watch your words. There are things you may want to say to someone in the midst of an anxiety attack that are well-meaning but that aren’t actually helpful. In fact, these common phrases could provoke more in-the-moment anxiety and come off as dismissive or even blaming. Some of those phrases to avoid include:
— Are you OK?
— Calm down.
— Have you seen your doctor/taken your medication? This may be something to gently discuss after an attack but not in the moment.
— It’s all in your head.
— I hear yoga is good for anxiety.
— This is really bad.
— What’s the big deal?
Instead of using these phrases, focus more on listening and doing what you can in the moment to help the person in whatever way they need help.
5. Decide if medical attention is needed. If you’re trying different ways to help that person and nothing is working after 30 minutes, seek medical attention. If you’re unsure if the person having an anxiety attack needs to see a doctor, it’s better to err on the side of caution and take them to see one, Marshall recommends. There can be overlap with heart attack and anxiety attack symptoms. There also can be other underlying health problems that cause an anxiety attack, such as thyroid issues. Tests can help rule out heart or other major medical issues, Brennan says.
6. Encourage the person to seek outside help. There are free mental health crisis hotlines to contact for help if needed, including the Crisis Text Line at 741741 (text the word “talk”) or 800-273-TALK (8255), which is offered by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Both of these provide help around the clock. These resources can be used both during an anxiety attack and afterward if the person still feels lonely, anxious or stressed. “We know there are many people struggling with anxiety who don’t get help, but they don’t have to go at this alone,” Marshall says.
7. Talk about the anxiety attack afterward. In a gentle, nonjudgmental way, take some time afterward with the person who had an attack to talk about it. Focus on a collaborative, caring effort and not blaming, Nunez advises.
Ask if they have had anxiety attacks before or if they need support seeking help for them. If possible, let the person know you will go with them to any initial appointments with a primary care doctor or therapist to seek help for their anxiety. By learning and practicing strategies that help counter anxiety, that person can help to lessen the the effect of anxiety or anxiety attacks in the future, Brennan says. Those strategies include:
— Biosound therapy.
— Cognitive behavioral therapy.
— Deep breathing.
— The use of medications.
Additionally, reflecting on the cause of an anxiety attack can help someone pinpoint potential triggers, be it stressful events or even something the person has had to eat or drink — such as too much caffeine — Nunez says.
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