A few years ago after a particularly rough night, my mum looked at me with tears in her eyes and said; “I feel powerless because I don’t know how to help you. I just want to make everything better, but I’m making it worse.” Despite not having any children of my own I can imagine how horrible this must have been, to watch someone you love in pain and not know what to do. If the roles were reversed I know I’d be desperate to help. Despite their best efforts nothing my parents tried really improved the situation and often made it worse.
My boyfriend also faced the same dilemma and he certainly bore the brunt of my rage when he said the ‘wrong’ thing. This in turn made me feel incredibly guilty because I knew that he was only trying to help.
It got me thinking about support people and how they cope when someone in their life suffers from anxiety or panic disorder. It must be exhausting and truly demoralising.
I’ve had quite a few emails from mothers asking for advice, so here we go… I can’t promise that it’ll be effective because every person is different, but if someone close to you has anxiety and you want to know how to comfort them then read on.
To begin with I must stress that if you haven’t already done so then encourage your child/partner/friend to make an appointment with their local GP to discuss treatment options. Ultimately the person will have to find a way to cope with their condition on their own, so the GP is a good place to start. I would suggest booking a ‘double appointment’ so that you can have a good chat.
In order to help someone with a disorder I think it’s important to understand the problem as a whole and how it makes them feel and think.
The first thing to highlight about anxiety and panic is that they are not rational disorders, so you can’t expect the normal things said to comfort a person in a distress to be much use.
Here’s an example of a typical anxiety fuelled scenario from my past:
Me: [Crying hysterically] I can’t breathe mum, everything is too much. I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Mum: What sweetheart? What’s wrong? Everything is ok you’re fine.
Me: [Continues crying and feels frustrated]
Mum: I don’t understand.
Claire: It’s me I’m a freak! Everyone knows it. I’m going to be miserable for the rest of my life. I can’t make it stop.
Mum: What? Claire calm down, you need to calm down. Oh God I’m making it worse aren’t I?
The above situation is what I refer to as ‘a meltdown’ – it happens when all of the anxiety that a person has been trying to suppress literally explodes from their mind. I compare it to a river bursting its banks, one that will not stop until all the water has drained, (which in turn leaves the person feeling drained and depleted of energy.) It can be very distressing to watch.
In my experience, people with anxiety are constantly on the look-out for signs that they are not normal. We’re trained detectors of human emotion (because ours are so fine tuned.) If you know someone with anxiety, chances are that they’ll have said something similar to this at some point; “He thinks I’m weird. I could just see it in his eyes, it was obvious.” “I’m sorry mum you must be so fed up with me being like this”
It’s a mixture of fear and guilt. Personally, I was afraid of what I call ‘the look.’ It’s difficult to articulate… the; ‘I don’t know what to say’ look. It used to fill me with a sense of dread and hopelessness. In a nutshell, it was a gaze that said; ‘You’re alone. No-one can help you.’
It’s something that I’ve seen in many people’s eyes over the years and although they’d deny this, it doesn’t change how it made me feel. (Yes I’m aware that I’m starting to sound paranoid at this point, but read on!)
This certainly isn’t a criticism of my parents or friends, because I cannot count the ways in which they tried to help. I’m incredibly lucky and thankful to have such support. To be honest, I think that what I construed to be a look of abandonment was most likely fear… they didn’t know what to do and I could see it. Consequently, like many sufferers I began to hide it. I hid from my boyfriend, friends and my parents because I couldn’t bear to see that look in their eyes and felt guilty for causing them pain.
1. Therefore (and I cannot stress this enough) when dealing with someone who is having an anxiety or a panic attack you must appear 100% calm and confident. Even if you’re shitting yourself, do an Oscar worthy performance and appear the opposite. This is very important because the person having the attack will feed off your emotions and react accordingly. If you’re calm, then it’ll help calm them. If you’re confident that everything will be ok then it will re-assure them.
2. Let the attack happen. Don’t tell them to ‘stop it’ or shout at them to ‘calm down!’ The attack is already happening and needs to run its course, so don’t encourage them to fight it. Also, do not be an over bearing presence and force them to ‘get over the attack faster’ just remain a constant and solid figure who will wait patiently until everything calms down a little, (because ultimately it will.) Attacks dissipate a lot faster when they are accepted by the brain.
3. Distract them. (No, I don’t mean start juggling knives or do cartwheels around the room!) Do something to take their mind off the situation. In particular, try something that forces them to engage their brain. Nothing too intense such as; “What’s 63 x 27!” Perhaps a simple game such as; “How many boy’s names can you think of beginning with the letter A.” Distracting the brain is an excellent strategy and if the person experiencing the attacks sees you getting involved then they will be more likely to join in.
Humour is also a very powerful tool. In my experience, laughter neutralises anxiety in the same way that water kills fire – so try and have a joke about the situation. E.g. “Bloody hell you’ve got steam coming out of your ears, you’re like a kettle!”
4. Recovering from an anxiety attack and panic attack differs slightly here.
Anxiety: After an attack the person will most likely feel exhausted, as it will have burned through their adrenalin and emotional resources. So help them to feel more comfortable. If you’re at home then put them on the couch with a few cushions. Offer to make them their favourite drink (hot chocolate does wonders btw) and show them affection (hugs etc.)
If you’re in a public place then make them as comfortable as you can; (find a coffee shop, go and sit in the car for 10 minutes,) just find a place in which they feel safe and let them decompress.
At this stage do not bombard them with questions about why they think the attack happened. Just make small talk and distract them with something e.g. The TV or music.
Panic: After an attack the individual’s body will be coursing with adrenalin and this needs to be expended (basically it needs to get used up as this will reduce the pounding heart symptom.) If possible encourage them to do some exercise and do it with them. One night when I had a horrendous panic attack my dad took me for a brisk walk in the cold January air. He didn’t realise it at the time (as everything was still trial and error) but it was the most helpful thing he ever suggested! It was 10pm at night, but that didn’t bother him. We put on our coats and walked around the streets for ten minutes.
If you can’t get outside to exercise, then perhaps run up and down the stairs, do some star jumps or start dancing? It might feel ridiculous but it really helps. (Do not suggest exercise if advised against this by a doctor.)
After the adrenalin has burned out the person will feel exhausted (psychically and mentally) so like above, make them feel comfortable.
After our walk my dad and I sat on the couch together and watched; Catch Me if You Can. We had a glass of wine and he wrapped his arms around me. I know that might sound quite strange… a 26 year old woman cuddling her dad on the couch like a child! However, it really helped and provided immense comfort. I felt 100% safe for the first time in ages. You’d be surprised how much the traditional and primitive techniques work.
Again, don’t bombard them with questions at this stage, just let them decompress.
5. Finally when everything has calmed down (leave it at least a few hours.) Ask them if they want to talk about it. To be honest, a therapist is more likely to be helpful here as they will already fully understand what the person is going through. CBT techniques can be very useful for anxiety. I would suggest joining Anxiety UK (I believe it’s £30) for a recommendation, as NHS waiting lists tend to be very lengthy. http://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/ Anxiety UK can suggest therapists and offer a significantly reduced rate.
I really hope this post helps. Anxiety and Panic Disorders are highly treatable, you just need to stay strong and be patient.
Below are some useful phrases that might be used to help comfort someone who is having an attack (I’ve split them between panic and anxiety.)
I’m right here, I’m going anywhere. We’ll work through this together. It’s 2015 not the Medieval Ages, this is a treatable condition. I’m not giving up on you.
One step at a time ok? I know you’re itching to think ahead and that your mind is buzzing but we need to try and stay in the present
You’re not the only one. This condition is more common than you think! There’s no need to feel embarrassed or ashamed.
Why don’t we play a game? There’s nothing decent on the TV anyway! How about trying to name all the characters in Coronation Street? You get more points for surname too!
Later when you’re feeling calmer we’ll talk about what’s troubling you. We’ll write them down and go through them together.
It’s ok. We know what this is, it’s a panic attack. You’re not losing your mind and you’re not ill. It’s just a trick, a horrible trick that your brain is playing on you. I know it’s really hard and that you’re suffering, but it will pass.
The way that you’re feeling now is the worst that it’s going to get. It will only get better.
This will pass, but we’re in no hurry to make it end. I don’t have to be anywhere, we can stay here all day if need be!
Everything is going to be ok. You’re strong and I’m so proud of you.