The first panic attack
I was standing in the canteen at work, talking to my team. I was getting more and more worried as my boss listed all the tasks we needed to complete, and was panicking about how I was going to juggle everything and get it all done. Then I started thinking about everything I hadn’t done at home. I’d forgotten my lunch that morning - and did I accidentally leave the iron on?
Suddenly I wasn’t listening to my boss anymore. My mind was swirling with thoughts, my inner critic shouting at me, reminding of everything I had to do. I couldn’t cope. I felt like a rabbit in headlights, frozen in terror - and then I blacked out.
Suddenly I wasn’t listening to my boss anymore.
I came round, lying on the floor of my work canteen, with my colleagues crowded around me. What had just happened? I’d fainted. Someone at work called 111, and they sent a fast-response ambulance. It was the second day in a row that I had fainted at work, and they were worried about me.
The paramedics came, did all the tests, and declared me physically absolutely fine. Except I clearly wasn’t fine. I couldn’t stop shaking, crying and feeling really dizzy. Luckily, one of the paramedics knew what a panic attack looked like, and he asked me if I was stressed about anything. “Have you lost someone?” he asked, and I was shocked that my bereavement was so obvious. It turned out he had lost someone too, and knew that panic attacks could be a part of the grieving process. He made me promise I would go and see my GP, which I did that very afternoon.
Panic attacks can be scary
After that incident, I had about five further panic attacks. They were really scary, although once I knew they were panic attacks, I found them easier to manage. I knew I had to simply take deep breaths, keep calm, and the feelings would pass. That was easier said than done though!
I was prescribed medication that I could take reactively when I felt a panic attack coming on, and this did help. But the panic attacks came from a rapid increase in my heart rate as I got more and more stressed about something, so the first thing I had to learn was how to control my breathing.
They were really scary, although once I knew they were panic attacks, I found them easier to manage.
How to help someone having a panic attack
It might be that one day you encounter someone having a panic attack. It’s really important that you know what to do if this happens - it’s more common than you would think, and it’s really easy to help someone stay calm and safe.
- Stay calm
It’s vital that you stay calm yourself - if you start getting stressed, that will not help the person having the panic attack! Remember that you can always call for help if you need it, but that panic attacks are not dangerous and the person just needs you to be next to them.
- Stay with the person
Most panic attacks last between 20 and 30 minutes, so don’t leave the person after a minute or two. They need you to be there for them for the duration of the panic attack, and if you leave, that could make things worse. This is a really stressful time for the person having a panic attack, so staying with them and being comforting and encouraging is really helpful.
- Say encouraging, calming things
Getting the person talking is vital - it will distract them from their thoughts and help to regulate their breathing. Try and get them to talk rationally about how they are feeling, but if asking questions about why they are stressed makes them more panicky, then talk about other things instead. When I was having my first panic attack at work, my colleagues chatted to me about their favourite films, their pets and holiday plans - anything to get my mind off the work tasks that caused me to panic!
- Check in with the person after their panic attack has ended
If someone has just had a panic attack, they will be left reeling long after the panic attack has ended and they seem “well” again. Make sure to check in with them later that day and the following day, to make sure they are doing ok. Remind them of how strong, brave and amazing they are, and make sure they know that they can always reach out to you to talk if things are getting overwhelming.
- Recommend things that will help them
Finally, you could make some recommendations for things that might help them manage their anxiety and prevent them having another panic attack. If you are really worried about their anxiety being overwhelming, do encourage them to visit their GP. If you think that they could benefit from daily meditation to keep calm, apps like Headspace and Calm are really good. Also point out helplines that are there 24/7 if they need to chat - Samaritans, childline and The Mix all have phone numbers that anyone can call if they need to get something off their chest.
In the UK, one in four people has a mental health condition, and panic attacks are increasingly common. They are nothing to be afraid of or ashamed by, and if you see someone having a panic attack, remember that it is really simple to help that person feel better again.