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Understanding Panic Attacks: What You Can Do to Help Your Loved One

Panic attacks are the body’s alarm system that has gone awry. Everybody has a built-in alarm system that responds to danger by speeding up breathing, heart rate, and blood flow. This system is powered by adrenaline. Normally, the danger response system works well to combat stress. In some people, however, the response is either out of proportion or may come out of the blue without a trigger. 


This danger response mechanism is commonly known as the "fight or flight" reaction that all people possess. When faced with a threat, this system may make a person fight the danger or run away. This causes the person to breathe heavily, which increases oxygen delivery to the body, experience a rise in heart rate, which increases blood flow, and tense their muscles in preparation for a fight or flight. 


These physiological alterations all aid in a person's survival in dangerous situations. Once the danger has passed, your body will return to a normal state, and bodily functions begin to return to normal. 


Panic attacks can be in response to danger but can also come out of the blue for many people. Sometimes stressful situations can trigger a panic attack. Why does the body go into emergency mode when there is no real danger? 


People who experience panic attacks are frightened or alarmed by the physical sensations of the emergency response system. Often, an unexpected rush of shortness of breath or tightness in your chest can lead to feeling alarmed by these symptoms. Panic attacks result from the brain's automatic reaction to perceived threats, which is fear. This reaction triggers the fight-or-flight response.


When having a panic attack, individuals can experience:

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Sweating

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Shortness of breath

  • Feeling of choking

  • Chest pain

  • Nausea or abdominal distress

  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint

  • Feelings of unreality or being detached from yourself

  • Fear of losing control or going crazy

  • Fear of dying

  • Numbness or tingling

  • Chills or hot flashes


It's important to understand that many stressful situations can trigger a panic attack. For example, fighting with a parent or work stressors can cause a stress response that can activate the emergency response system. Recognizing what triggers that stress response in yourself can help avoid future panic attacks.


When helping a partner through a panic attack there are several interventions that individuals can do alone or with a partner to help develop strategies for the future. 


Breathing Regulation: When a person is having a panic attack, that emergency response system tightens the chest and can cause rapid breathing. Slowing the body down and taking deep breaths can help the body get more oxygen, in turn helping you relax. You can practice this technique with your partner up to three times a day in a quiet environment to help train your brain on how to breathe during a panic attack.

  • Inhale: With your shoulders relaxed, inhale as slowly and deeply as you can while you count to six. If you can, use your diaphragm to fill your lungs with air.

  • Hold. Keep the air in your lungs as you slowly count to four.

  • Exhale. Slowly breathe out as you count to six.

  • Repeat. Do the inhale-hold-exhale cycle several times. Each time you do it, exhale for longer counts.


Recognizing Triggers: Regardless of whether you can identify the root of your panic attacks or they just come out of thin air, there are certain people, places and things that can become triggers for panic attacks. Being able to recognize and understand where and why that trigger could be causing you stress can be the first step in helping you heal.


Cognitive Interventions: Often when someone is having a panic attack, many people engage in negative self-talk like “I’m having a heart attack” or “I think I’m dying”. Learning how to use coping statements instead of negative self-talk can help to divert a panic attack. Some helpful coping statements:

  • This is not an emergency.

  • I don’t like feeling this way, but I can accept it.

  • I can feel like this and still be okay.

  • This has happened before, and I was okay. I’ll be okay this time, too.

  • I can be anxious and still deal with this situation.

  • I can handle these symptoms or sensations.


In addition to strategies that can help in the future, here are a few strategies that can help you guide your partner through a panic attack:


Identify the panic attack: You can gently tell your partner that you believe that they are having a panic attack. You can help provide them context of what is happening and let them know that it will be over soon. 


Stay Calm: One of the best things you can do for your partner is to remain calm and remind yourself as well that the panic attack is temporary. If the situation becomes overwhelming, reach out to someone else for help. 


Give your partner space: Everybody's response to panic attacks is different. Keep in mind that not everyone enjoys being comforted and some do. The limbic system of the brain induces a hyperarousal state of panic when a person is on high alert, which can make stimuli like lighting, music, or touch overstimulating.


Use coping statements: While we don't want to downplay someone experiencing a panic attack, we can reassure your loved one that they have the strength to handle the situation.


Avoid these statements: When a partner is suffering a panic attack, it's important to avoid asking whether they're okay or using statements that invalidate their experience, such as: 

  • "It's all in your head."

  • "Snap out of it."

  • "Nothing's happening."

  • "You're fine."

  • "I know exactly how you feel."

  • "What's wrong with you?"

  • "Why are you getting upset over that?"

  • "There's absolutely nothing to be afraid of."


If your significant other experiences panic attacks, it is critical to understand what tactics work and which do not. Learning what helps your spouse during panic attacks will help you avoid future panic attacks.



If you suffer from panic attacks, don't hesitate to reach out to one of our professional therapists for help at info@georgetowncouplestherapy.com or 416 949 9878.

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