Panic disorder impacts 6 million adults or 2.7% of the U.S. population. Individuals diagnosed with panic disorder experience unexpected and recurring attacks that last for a few minutes or longer. People with this condition may attempt to avoid social interactions and experience professional or financial difficulties. These issues may prompt the development of depression, anxiety, other mental health issues or substance use disorders.
Mental health first aid can be used to help people experiencing panic attacks stay calm and cope with their symptoms until professional help or a loved one arrive. A person providing mental health first aid can provide encouragement and referral information so that longer-term supports can be put into place.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Panic attacks often occur unexpectedly. Symptoms tend to climax within several minutes and subside as quickly as they started. A person often feels drained and exhausted when the panic attack finally ends.
The physical sensations of a panic attack include:
- Trembling and shivering
- Feelings of looming disaster
- Tightness in the chest and throat
- Feelings of detachment and lack of control
- Chills or hot flashes
- Numb or tingling sensations
- Feelings of queasiness, stomach cramping and vomiting
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing and shortness of breath
Causes of a Panic Attack
The actual cause of panic attacks is unknown, but several factors play a role, including heredity and genetics, significant life stressors and sensitive mood temperaments.
Although the onset of an initial panic attack is unexpected, it is usually triggered by specific stimuli as time goes on. Although panic attacks tend to mimic the body’s fight-or-flight response, it is unknown why a panic attack occurs when no apparent danger is present.
Factors that may heighten the risk of experiencing a panic attack include:
- Family history of panic attacks, anxiety conditions or panic disorder
- Significant life stressors, such as death or illness
- Trauma, such as accidents or assault
- A history of physical or sexual abuse in childhood
- Important life changes, such as moving, undergoing a divorce or having a baby
- Smoking or extreme caffeine consumption
How to Provide Mental Health First Aid for Panic Attacks
Anyone can provide mental health first aid for panic attacks. If it is suspected that a person is having a panic attack, mental health first aid advises to follow the ALGEE action steps. ALGEE is a five-step action plan, which is a mnemonic for:
- Assess for risk of suicide or harm
- Listen non-judgmentally
- Give reassurance and information
- Encourage appropriate professional help
- Encourage self-help and other support strategies
These steps will allow a person providing mental health first aid to lessen the risk of harm to a person experiencing a panic attack while providing them with compassionate support until professional help can be obtained.
Assess for Risk of Suicide or Harm
Before assisting someone having a panic attack, it is critical to assess for harm. Ask whether the person’s symptoms are stemming from anxiety or fear, or if they may be related to another medical issue, as symptoms of a panic attack can also be indicative of cardiac distress. It is important to assess if an individual has ever experienced a panic attack in the past. If they haven’t and do not believe that they are currently having one, call 911 immediately and follow medical first aid protocols.
One of the key components of mental health first aid is empathetic listening. Listening in a non-judgmental manner shows a person that you care and will not judge them for their mental health struggles. The ability to listen in a non-judgmental manner will encourage them to speak openly and honestly about their condition. It is always important to avoid assuming that you know what will benefit a person most in a challenging moment. Ask the person what they need and let them tell you what would be most helpful to them.
Practice active listening skills by:
- Maintaining strong eye contact
- Keeping body language open and relaxed
- Reflecting back what the person has said and ask questions to show understanding
- Being comfortable with crying, silence and awkward moments in conversation
- Demonstrating patience
Give Reassurance and Information
It is important to stay calm and assure the person that they are likely experiencing a panic attack, which is not life-threatening or dangerous. Validate their feelings that what they are experiencing is uncomfortable, terrifying and stressful. Ensure them that the panic attack will pass quickly and be over soon. Speak clearly and with patience and stay with them for the duration of the attack. If the person is breathing rapidly, remain calm and encourage them to breathe more slowly.
Reassure the person that they are not unworthy or to blame for their panic attacks, that panic attacks are treatable and that you are available to listen should they need you again in the future.
In addition to providing emotional support, present the person with information about panic attacks along with resources on where to get help. The Recovery Village offers an array of informational resources about panic attacks, anxiety and panic disorder and how to cope with these conditions along with educational blogs, such as:
- Anxiety and Addiction: A Debilitating Duo for Many
- Building a Crisis Kit: 10 Items and Actions to Beat Anxiety
- What You Should Know About Depression and Anxiety
Encourage Appropriate Professional Help
When the person’s panic attack has ended, offer them resources and information related to panic attacks. Assure them that panic attacks, anxiety disorder and panic disorder are treatable conditions that are responsive to comprehensive care.
What If the Person Doesn’t Want Help?
If it becomes apparent that the person is hesitant or opposed to professional treatment, gently ask them about their concerns and try to address their fears and misunderstandings. Reassure them about confidentiality and let them know that they deserve to overcome their panic attacks. Kindly remind them that their panic attacks could potentially worsen without professional intervention.
Despite this, it is important to understand that a person can never be forced or coerced into treatment. If they remain tentative or uncertain after your encouragement, provide support and assurance that you will be available to help link them to professional treatment should they change their mind in the future.
Encourage Self-Help and Other Support Strategies
Encourage the person to access other support systems including family, friends, religious groups and trusted others in the community. Let them know that there are support groups specific to those who experience anxiety and panic attacks and encourage them to reach out to them.
You can also encourage the individual to engage in self-care routines and strategies to promote healthy coping skills, including:
- Participating in daily exercise
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Engaging in mindfulness techniques, such as meditation
- Putting together an anxiety crisis kit
- Committing to minimalism and daily gratitude practices
- Using anxiety management practices at home
- Employing coping strategies to manage anxiety at work
- Practicing self-care by taking a mental health day when warranted
Helpful Hotlines for Mental Health First Aiders
National helplines have trained mental health practitioners ready by to assist people in finding mental health treatment resources in their regions. As a mental health first aid provider, you can direct people you are assisting to any of these free, confidential hotlines:
- National Suicide Helpline: 1-800-273-8255
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357
- American Psychiatric Association Answer Center: 1-888-35-77924
- American Psychological Association Public Education Line: 1-800-964-2000
- The National Mental Health Association: 800-969-6642
- The National Poison Control Center: 800-222-1222
- Alcohol and Drug Abuse Helpline: 1-800-821-4357
- National Institute on Drug Abuse Hotline: 1-800-729-6686
If you have the opportunity to provide mental health first aid to someone struggling with a co-occurring disorder like panic attacks and substance abuse, you can connect them to high-quality treatment by calling The Recovery Village. The Recovery Village’s toll-free and confidential hotline is obligation-free and available 24 hours a day. Representatives knowledgeable in both mental health and addiction are standing by to help you find the right type of co-occurring disorder treatment at our various centers across the country.