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Supporting Your Loved One Through A Panic Attack

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Twice a month, SANE Australia runs Topic Tuesday events on our forums. These are a chance for people around the country to come together in real time to discuss issues involving complex mental illness. Previous topics have covered everything from the side effects of medication to creating a safety plan, from supporting someone through panic attacks to sex and intimacy with a complex mental illness.

Topic Tuesday discussions are anonymous, safe, moderated by mental health professionals and free for users to take part.

The forum holds a space for a Lived Experience community and another for the Carers community and a monthly event is held in each side. In January we hosted “Supporting your loved one through a panic attack” in the Carers forum but with participation from people in both groups.

It was extremely informative to hear about panic attacks from both those having them and those observing them. Here’s a selection of perfectives from the event.

Many said the first time came as a shock:

“I didn`t know about panic attacks but one day while mowing [my partner] could not move - it seemed like he was glued to the spot. I did not know what to do! I said to sit for a little while but he got worse.”

“It is unexpected and scary at the time… you are not sure when it will appear.”

How does it feel to have a panic attack? What visual signs can an observer use to identify one?

“For me a panic attack causes an intense need to flee, to get away. I can’t think rationally. Breathing becomes difficult and ragged. My heart beats a million miles an hour and I just hear a roar in my ears. At their worst, I will be physically sick, vomiting and sometimes diarrhea. It’s all pretty awful.”

“I froze, my mind went blank, and I virtually stopped breathing. Fortunately I was in session with my psychologist when this happened. She said "Breathe, stop pushing yourself" and "Pause".”

“I think it is fairly typical to feel totally exhausted after a bad panic attack. I know I feel totally wiped out afterwards. It is a pretty extreme physical reaction after all, and it takes a fairly heavy physical toll on you.”

What are practical tips to help in the moment?

“We joined some online headspace apps with meditation and that was our biggest breakthroughs during an attack. I think it was the breathing instructions on the meditation that was super helpful rather than the actual meditating.”

“Holding his hands was all I could do that seemed to help.”

“It’s very important to get the person to control their breathing. Try counting with them as they breathe in and out. Also try to help them to get into the here and now. Grounding exercises can help with this.”

“I stay quiet with him and we lay down hold his hand and do the meditation app together. Sometimes I would have to encourage him to stay calm.”

“Gentle reassurance while focussing on the facts.”

Although another person said this didn’t work for them.

“It does not help when I tell him he will be ok. It definitely doesn’t help when I try and talk him through the attack by telling him what it is.”

A cup of tea, however, could be useful.

“I sat down with a cuppa. I could not put on the TV, could not read, just sat there with my cuppa.”

Topic Tuesdays take place in the SANE Forums, which you can find here.

For more information about panic attacks contact the SANE Australia Helpline: 1800 187 263 (10am-10pm AEST / Monday to Friday).

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