“I feel like I’m dying,” is the typical phrase expressed by the person enduring a panic attack. Due to symptoms such as a pounding heart and labored breathing, the sufferer may truly believe that their life is in danger. It can take numerous trips to the emergency room before the person is even properly diagnosed with this mental health disorder. This can be very upsetting for the person faced with panic disorder and can also be worrisome for family and significant others.
Family can have a significant impact on the recovery process. Listed below are some dos and don’ts for friends and family to keep in mind when handling a loved one with panic disorder.
Do educate yourself.
The best way to begin to understand the experience of the panic disorder sufferer is to become educated about the diagnosis. Read up on common symptoms, as this will help you become less fearful and irritated by the other person’s behavior. Read up on information that outlines the basics about panic disorder, common symptoms, treatment options,and prognosis. Read more to learn about relaxation techniqueswhich can assist in reducing the impact of a panic attack.
Don't aggravate the situation.
If you happen to be there during one of their panic attacks, it is crucial that you remain calm and collected. It might impact the panic sufferer adversly if they think you are afraid too or angry at them. If you have educated yourself about panic disorder, you will know that it is not life-threatening, so there is no reason to become fearful. You may feel burdened if you need to take the person to the hospital or are called at work by your panic-stricken loved one. However, getting upset with the person will only exacerbate the condition. If annoyance is voiced or the person is made to feel guilty, it may emotionally impact the panic sufferer. As feelings of helplessness and social isolation set in, the sufferer will likely experience worse anxiety and attacks.
Do listen and talk person through the attack.
When panic ensues, allow the person to express what is happening to them. Get updates on how they are by asking “How are you feeling now?” Reassure them that they are safe and that you won’t let anything bad happen to them. Listen carefully and acknowledge their fears.
Do assist with self-help relaxation exercises.
Before another attack even occurs, plan ahead and decide with them what strategies are most helpful in getting through the panic. During the attack, assist the person with their breathing by taking deep breaths with them or counting along as they breathe. Use affirmations along with them, stating “You are safe.” You can always simply lend a hand by getting them a seat, helping them to an area where they feel secure, or bringing them a glass of water.
Do be encouraging.
Panic disorder is overcome in little steps. Remember to acknowledge the person’s small victories. For example, a person who often panics in a car may agree to a short drive around the block. This tiny movement forward may not seem like much progress to you, but it is still a step towards growth. Your praise along the way will improve the person’s sense of confidence. Over time as the person becomes more self-assured and will begin to make further strides towards recovery.
Don’t force them into feared situations or tell them that they are overacting.
Patience and trust are vital components for helping someone battle panic disorder. If the panic sufferer is pushed into a situation they are not ready for, they may withdraw as their fears intensify. The symptoms can only worsen by hastily propelling them into a panic-inducing situation or telling the person that they are being melodramatic. Remain supportive, but allow them the space to work through some of their own issues. Have faith that your loved one will recover on their own time.
Do seek professional help.
Couples and families dealing with panic disorder can benefit greatly from therapy. Through therapeutic intervention, family can work together on treatment planning and recovery. Family therapy to address dependency needs of the panic sufferer, support issues, communication problems, and education may be beneficial as adjunct treatment. Individual therapy can also benefit those dealing with a loved one with panic disorder, allowing for open and honest sharing of concerns and frustrations without fear of hurting their feelings. Another option for the family would be group therapy that focuses on supporting families who are coping with a member with a mental disorder. These types of support groups are offered through advocacy organizations, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Do take care of yourself.
It is important that you maintain your own quality of life while your loved one works through this problem. Taking care of yourself and your priorities may help alleviate feelings of resentment or annoyance. Stick to your plans, regardless of how the person is feeling. For instance, if you had plans to go out with friends or visit with extended family, still do so even if they feel too afraid to go. Also, set boundaries with them, such as limiting the amount of phone calls you will take while you are at work or deciding what days you can make available to assist them outside of the home.
Even though coping with a loved one with panic disorder can be demanding, assisting them in overcoming it can be rewarding for your relationship. By supporting them through this journey you can improve communication, foster trust, and enhance intimacy. With kindness, empathy, patience, understanding, and love, family and friends can serve as some of the most effective instruments for recovery. Read more tips for supporting a friend or loved one with panic disorder.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
Carter, Michele. “Clinical Update: Panic Disorder. Family Therapy Magazine 1 (2002): 32-38.