This time of year we are all busy with summer activities, work, fitting everything possible into the short summer season we tend to have here. Outdoor events to plan and attend, family to visit and memories to create.
While summer feels like it should be about getting outdoors or relaxing, this time of year also brings stress and anxiety for many as well. Commuting, traffic, busy and stressful work — it all takes a toll. Anxiety disorders affect 40 million individuals each year. In fact, it is the most common reported mental illness. Panic disorders fall under this category and are experienced by a roughly 3% of the population.
Panic attacks can be a terrifying experience, not only for the person having the attack, but also for those around them. Knowing a bit of mental health first aid to recognize and respond can be helpful. The group Mental Health First Aid describes a panic attack as “a sudden onset of intense anxiety, fear or terror that often occurs for no obvious reason.”
Symptoms (according to Mental Health First Aid):
• Rapid heart rate
• Shortness of breath
• Sense of impending danger
• Faintness or dizziness
• Hot flashes or chills
• Chest pain
• Tightness in your throat, difficulty in swallowing
Panic attacks can come on suddenly and without warning at any time. If you have ever experienced one, you know why many end up in the emergency room. The Mayo Clinic reports the disorder can manifest in late teens or early adulthood and tends to affect women more often than men. The cause is not known but research does support a combination of biological and environmental factors including family history, trauma or life events, substance abuse and cognitive distortions that exaggerate physiological response. Attacks may vary but will usually peak within 10 minutes or so and may cause the individual to feel fatigued afterward.
Once you have a panic attack the fear of having another can become so great that individuals may begin to avoid situations where they may occur. If not treated the condition can affect every area of one’s life. Psychotherapy, biofeedback and medications can all be helpful, as can making lifestyle changes in sleep, diet and exercise. Panic attacks can also resemble serious health problems such as a heart attack, so it is important to seek medical help if you experience symptoms.
Now that you know the symptoms, how can you help someone having a suspected panic attack? Mental Health First Aid classes give some direction in responding. First, you should remain calm and speak in a reassuring but confident manner. Speak using short and clear sentences with clear and slow speech and avoid negative reactions.
• Let the person know that you are concerned and willing to help.
• Ask the person if they know what has happened or if they have a history of panic attacks.
• If you are unsure whether it is a panic attack or a serious health condition, check for a medical alert bracelet and follow any instructions and seek medical assistance.
• If the person knows they are experiencing a panic attack, reassure them and ask the person if they would like assistance.
• Reassure the person that you understand the fear and anxiety they are experiencing feels very real.
• Calmly remind them that he/she is safe and that the symptoms will pass.
• Ask the individual how you might be able to best assist them. Grounding exercises are often remarkably effective.
• Stay with the person until help arrives or the panic attack has ended.
• Once the attack has ended, offer resources for learning more about panic attacks such as the Anxiety and Depression Association and HelpGuide.org.
• Encourage the person to speak with a health professional if the attack persists.
To learn about Mental Health First Aid and to find classes near you, visit MentalHealthFirstAid.org or call Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center. We offer free classes throughout the year.
My favorite go-to grounding exercise is the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. This exercise takes your mind off uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and into the present by using your senses. Notice:
• 5 things you can see around you
• 4 things you can touch/feel
• 3 things you can hear
• 2 things you can smell
• 1 thing you can taste
• Name things in categories. Pick a category and name things that fall into that category. For example, name five types of dogs, name three types of trees, etc.
• Describe a normal activity in detail. Laundry, for example. Describe what you are doing in detail: “First, I separate colors from darks, then I let the machine fill, then I pour in the detergent …”
• Visualize a calm and safe place. While this may seem vague, try focusing on a pleasant mental image. Imagine yourself on a beach or a mountain, or anywhere you consider to be restful or joyful.
• Turn to humor. Use humor to jolt yourself out of the moment. If you have a smartphone and happen to come across funny videos occasionally, save those videos so you can watch them in moments of panic or anxiety.
• Count. You can also count to 10 followed by counting backward or saying the alphabet very slowly. You can even try to say the alphabet backward.
As always, you can call JHCCC 24/7/365 to speak with a therapist or ask questions about dealing with this issue or any other concern. We also now have an additional resource available to us all — you can call 988 and be routed to a professional trained in handling a variety of crisis.