Helping Someone with an Anxiety Attack: From Someone with GAD

For the UAS Whalesong

For those who don’t know, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or GAD) is, as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America puts it, “A disorder characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.” Last issue, Alexa Cherry gave a great article on Anxiety Awareness and I wanted to put my two cents in, especially as someone who has an anxiety disorder.

For me, I know that I am almost always stressed about something. It can be anything. Whether it’s school, a social interaction, or even sending an email, I find some way of blowing it out of proportion in my head. That’s what anxiety is: something you build in your head and can’t stop thinking about. But what helps me often is not breathing techniques or tea, it’s other people. Alexa brought up some good tips on how to help yourself, but what I think is also important is how people who don’t have GAD might be able to help those who do, because it shouldn’t be suffered alone or in silence.

An anxiety or panic attack is described as, “A sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear,” (Help Guide). Which includes trouble breathing, shaking, crying, etc. And, for me, one of the worst things to have to sit through and deal with. People who don’t regularly have panic attacks might have difficulty understanding them, but will want to help, anyway. So here are some things that could help you get someone else through it.

Firstly, you should see if they want help in the first place. For a lot of people, it’s normal to deal with an attack on their own, so they may not want help. Others though, might feel safer if they’re around another person. So, asking is a good first step.

The best thing you can do for someone is to be calm, yourself. If you start panicking as well, especially in a situation you’re unfamiliar with, then the person going through the attack might get worse. It could even make the person feel bad because they’ll feel that they’re burdening you. Often, they will feel like they are burdening you, anyway. This will make that feeling worse. It’s a situation that requires you to be calm and comforting. It’s not that you can’t be worried or concerned, but outright panic won’t help either of you. This calm demeanor can be helpful because the person going through the attack will see someone calm and know that it is okay.

Next to that is probably something that should just be understood: don’t belittle the situation. Making the person feel bad or telling them what they’re panicking over is stupid doesn’t help, it just makes the situation unsafe. Something a person going through an attack needs is a safe place and person to go to. If I get told panicking over an email is small and insignificant it just makes the person who told me that the last person I’ll ever rely on again. Don’t make the person feel worse than they already do.

Offer them water! Some people cry during an attack and they will be dehydrated after. You can offer during the attack, but it’s important to just have some for afterward. It may help stave off a second round. They’ll be focused on drinking and how good the water is, rather than what caused their anxiety to spike in the first place. If not water, tea or hot chocolate—whatever beverage they need.

Help them get to a quiet place. Being in a loud noisy place will only make the person’s anxiety skyrocket. Even if they’re not having an attack, noise can be a contributing factor to someone trying to hold off from having one in the first place. While you might think that outside noise might be distracting, it can actually just be stressful.

Ask before you touch them. If it isn’t clear that they want physical contact or not, you could make the situation a whole lot worse. A hug can feel constricting and make breathing feel harder. A hand on the shoulder could make them think physical harm is coming to them. Physical contact in general depends on the person, so it’s best to see if it’s okay before you initiate. Just ask, because for some people it’s more comforting than it is for others. Besides, you should ask before touching someone anyway.

Finally, be patient. If you get annoyed because the attack is longer than you thought it would be, it will just make you seem distrustful and the other person will spiral back down. You want the other person to feel better and trying to speed up process is just going to make the situation worse. You have to let the other person take their time in coming down.

You also have to understand that an anxiety attack is not a one-time thing. It can and will happen again and if you’ve been there for a person before, the one experiencing it may feel safest coming to you. Be willing to listen, to offer water, to just sit by a person and talk at them, honestly whatever takes to help them. It’s not always an outright panic attack either, it can be a sleepless night because they stayed up all night thinking about everything they have to get done. Anxiety and panic attacks are complicated and all over the place sometimes, so all you can do is offer a bit of help. If they want it, be there for them and make sure you’re understanding of the other person.

“Helping Someone During a Panic Attack-Topic Overview.” WebMD. WebMD. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
“Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.” Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

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