Have you ever had a friend who was the life and soul of every party? You know, the guy or girl who is up for anything, always bubbly and bright, always a little bit drunk before the night starts? The one who starts off on a high but either ends up ugly drunk crying or snogging someone utterly inappropriate? Yeah, we’ve all had that friend – hell, we may have even been that friend (no judgement here, folks – been there, done some of that, suffered the panic attack during the evening out…)
Or how about this person: the friend who never calls or visits you even though you call/visit them? The friend who, no matter how many times you make arrangements to go out, cancels at the last minute knowing you’ll understand?
Actually, the chances are that after a while you won’t understand. The chances are you’ll actually be more than a little pissed off with them if they do it more than once or twice. The chances are your friendship will dwindle…
Ever wondered why people act like that? It might surprise you to know, after reading the opening paragraphs, that today I’m writing about anxiety.
The odds are pretty strong that you’ve suffered from it yourself at some stage in your life even if only in a minor capacity – ever had sweaty palms when you met someone new, not wanted to get in a car when someone you don’t know is driving? That’s anxiety on a minor scale. Anxiety in itself is a good thing because it stops us doing things that can be harmful to us. But what if that anxiety becomes overwhelming and out of control?
Real, ongoing, anxiety can be life-limiting and can spring up, seemingly, out of nowhere.
So, presuming you value these people, what can you do to help? I’m actually speaking as a former sufferer of panic attacks, and no, I’ve never admitted it before. There’s (in my head, at least) always been a kind of stigma around them – that sense that non-sufferers will think less of me for it. They hit me in my twenties after I witnessed my mother die unexpectedly, and stopped within a year or so – but I’ve suffered from anxiety ever since to one degree or another.
These are the things I wish I, and my surrounding friends and family, had known then (particularly number 10). I hope they help.
- Take a step back and ask yourself why your friend is acting like this. Have they been like it since you first met them or has their behaviour changed over time? Could it be that the problem they told you about six months ago that you dismissed as trivial, wasn’t? If you can come up with a tangible reason, you can wait for a calm moment and carefully and kindly ask if there’s anything you can do to help them. If you can’t come up with a reason (and it’s a friendship you value), go and see them and gently ask if something’s wrong. They may not tell you, of course. They may not know what the problem is. They may just know that everything is too overwhelming and they’re not coping and expect nobody to understand. Even you.
- Understand that they are not doing it deliberately. They don’t deliberately set out to annoy/upset you. Their emotions are all over the place and they’re not thinking clearly so they try to cover it up – sometimes, in inappropriate ways.
- Be kind. Believe me when I say that anxious people do not like feeling anxious. They are not attention-seeking. They very often spend vast amounts of time beating themselves up without you adding to it. An anxious person will struggle with their emotions every single day and it’s not something they can control. Hell, if they could control it, they would! Who wants to feel afraid and panicky all the time? *** So what do you do if the anxiety escalates into full-blown panic attacks?
- Panic attacks are very real things. If you’ve ever had one, you’ll know the sensation that washes over you – the racing heart, the sweating, the chest pains, the inescapable belief that you are going to either faint or vomit, or worse – die. So if you witness a friend or family member having a panic attack, do not ask them if they’re okay (they aren’t) and do not tell them to snap out of it. At the height of a panic attack, they are not in control of themselves and they are not capable of logical thinking. Have you ever been out of control with anger? Has someone telling you to snap out of it ever worked? There you go. They already know it’s irrational but they can’t help themselves at that moment so don’t talk down to them.
- With an adult, sit with them patiently as they go through the attack. In silence, if need be. Let them hold on to you if they need to – it could just be that holding their hand helps to ground their feelings, even if you’re not a hand-holding kind of person. Remember to put aside any irritation you may feel. Let them be if they don’t want to be touched but reassure them, in low measured tones, that it’s a panic attack and they’re not going to die if that’s what they’re scared of in that moment.
- If it’s your child who is suffering, hold them, even if they are pushing you away. Contain your emotions – they’re struggling with their own so don’t make them feel guilty for making you sad – you can cry when they’re not around. Let them rant and rail at you if need be, but hold them so that they know you love them and are in control (even if you don’t think you are)! They need to know that however they are feeling inside, someone will always love them despite what their emotions are telling them and despite their current behaviour.
- Act counter-intuitively. Tell them it’s okay to let the feelings wash over them. Give the sufferer permission to be out of control without making them feel silly. Tell them they’re safe with you and you won’t let anything bad happen. Remember, panic attacks do not kill, even though the sufferer may feel like they’re dying. Sometimes, simply getting through it and knowing nothing terrible happened can lessen the effect of further attacks or even stop them occurring.
- They won’t expect you to understand what they’re feeling. Hell, they don’t understand what they’re feeling! But they’ll appreciate it if you try to understand. Without judgment, please, so no telling them not to be so silly – that won’t help!
- Don’t panic when you see them panicking – it will fuel their anxieties. Even if you feel helpless, or inadequate, remember that they don’t need to be worrying about your reactions and you don’t need to show them! Stay calm.
- A person in the throes of a panic attack is out of control. Don’t fuel it by making it about you. Find a paper bag (brown is the seemingly best kind, but any will do – don’t try it with plastic!) and have them breathe into it. As their breathing rate slows (it’ll be super-fast in the throes of an attack), remove the bag and ask them to inhale for a count of five and exhale for a count of ten. Panic is fuelled by oxygen and taking in their own exhaled breath (carbon dioxide) from the bag lowers oxygen intake and therefore lowers the fuel. Another trick is to have them focus on a particular object or spot on the wall and ask them to describe it. Have them hold something and describe what they can feel. If they have bare feet, have them plant them firmly on the floor and tell you how that feels – this technique is called grounding as it gives the sufferer something else to think about. Or have them think about the most beautiful place they can. Ask them to close their eyes and see it in their mind’s eye and then put themselves into it. Something that worked for me (don’t laugh) was to lie in bed (I was a total insomniac at the time) on my back and make my body ramrod rigid. Then, working from my toes, I stiffened them even harder, imagined a warm wave washing over them with a long inhalation, and relaxed them on the exhale. With the next inhale, the warm wave washed up to my shins and I relaxed my lower leg, then my knees, thighs, hips, fingers, lower arms – you get the picture – all the way up to the top of my head. After the first couple of attempts, I was asleep, properly asleep, before I got to my chest. If you sleep well, you’re more in control the following day. Yes, you’ll feel stupid doing it, but proper sleep is necessary to function. (I still do this now if I’ve had a stressful day – it still works!)
- When they are over the attack and calmer, (probably best on a day where an attack has not occurred) suggest mindfulness classes, or yoga, and go with them. Physically collect them if you can so they can’t back out.
- Suggest they see their GP. Doctors have a variety of things they can do to help nowadays, from prescription drugs to CBT.