Since the start of pandemic, there has been an exponential rise in people experiencing mental health challenges across the world. According to a study, there were 375,000 Google searches for anxiety between March and May of last year alone. This is because for many, this is the first time they’re confronted with challenges like anxiety and depression, and don’t know what to do when they or someone close to them is experiencing it.
So how does one handle an anxiety attack? First, we need to understand what an anxiety attack is. When a person feels an intense feeling of impending doom and fear due to stress or being in a situation that reminds them of past trauma, to the extent that they are unable to function normally, they experience an anxiety attack. According to Keerthana Panneer, a Bengaluru-based psychotherapist, the way to identify an anxiety attack is to look at the physical signs. “A person having a panic attack will find it difficult to breathe freely, will feel dizzy or nauseous. Some will also feel a numbing or tingling sensation or pressure in their limbs and chills or hot flashes,” she told Re:Set, adding that in some cases a person can even completely disassociate with reality. “One can have an anxiety attack and not show any physical symptoms and…won’t be responsive or acknowledge anything that’s happening around them,” she said. “It becomes harder to identify and bring them back to reality in such cases.”
An anxiety attack can be a very scary experience and handling it correctly can go a long way in calming the person down. With the help of Panneer, Re:Set has put together a list of do’s and don’ts to help calm someone having an anxiety attack.
The first step, says Panneer, is for you to remain calm. “It may be difficult as it is distressing to see someone around you have an anxiety attack. But it is important to remain calm so as to not add to their anxiety and make it worse,” she said. Taking a few deep breaths to steady yourself and thinking of what to do next is always good.
Asking a highly anxious person to calm down or relax, when they are clearly not in a state to calm down, is very counterproductive. “You have to keep in mind that an anxious person’s brain is not letting them calm down due to a perceived threat. Their brain goes into fight-or-flight mode because of it. So asking them to relax when they can’t will just be more aggravating,” Panneer explained. Instead, you can talk to them in a soothing tone and reassure them that you are there to help them.
Practicing deep breathing can be a very effective first step toward calming someone down. Panneer suggests counting breaths with the person, so that it is easier for them to follow you and calm themselves down. “Inhale for four counts and exhale for six to eight counts. The more oxygen enters the body and more carbon dioxide is expelled, the faster the body and the mind calm down,” she told Re:Set.
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Grounding exercises — exercises that help one feel less overwhelmed by emotions — are important when dealing with an anxiety attack. Panneer advised giving the person something to eat or drink or feel or hear, in order to engage any of their five senses. The person can be made to walk barefoot on a comfortable surface, too. This helps the person come back to reality and manage the overwhelming wave of emotions.
It is very important not to be dismissive of the person and their worries during an anxiety attack. Yes, their fears may be unfounded at that moment, but it is important not to make them feel belittled about it. Do not counter their fears with facts or arguments that suggest that their threat is imaginary. Instead, be extra empathetic and do some deep listening, which is to listen to them with attention, without interrupting them, and be gentle and reassuring.
In any such situation, it is also best to seek help from a medical professional. Panneer stresses on the need especially if symptoms of shortness of breath and numbness persist even after the person has regained some control. There could be other reasons causing the symptoms and the person may need medical attention.