I consider myself to be extremely lucky that despite having to live with this constant, sometimes debilitating anxiety as part of my bipolar disorder I have friends who have and continue to support me. Although I have always known this and am reminded of it regularly in the little things like a text message to check how I am doing, or a slightly longer hug hello or goodbye, or a reassuring smile, I am also reminded of it in the bigger things they do to support me too.
Last night was one of these examples, and I want to share it so if you too have a friend who has anxiety and/or panic attacks you can use these ideas to support them. However, I have learned that everyone is different and may not respond to the same support.
Before I share the things these friends have done on more than one occasion to support me during a panic attack I want to add a little context, as if you have never experienced a panic attack yourself it is hard to imagine what it can feel like.
Panic attacks can come in all shapes and sizes and can vary person to person or situation to situation. They can be the more obvious type that include hyperventilating, feeling faint and sweaty or nauseous, but they can also take a more hidden form where the person may be distant and withdrawn and unable to engage or interact. Whatever form they take, they are just as scary and the person cannot just switch them off.
I have experienced both of the above types as well as times where the two have been mixed. Although I know certain situations can trigger them, they do not always occur in that situation and sometimes they can spring from nowhere unexpectedly.
Last night I experienced a mix of the two in a situation where I knew I would struggle. I could not prevent it, I could not switch it off or snap out of it. I had to ride it out, but the support of friends made that easier to do. So if you wish to support someone in a similar situation, here is what they did that worked for me:
1. If you know a situation is likely to be difficult for someone you care about do not try to convince them to avoid it. I wanted to go out last night. It was important that I went. I wanted to be there for the friend celebrating a new job. If I hadn’t have gone I would have hated myself more. Instead, my friends supported me by arranging to pick me up so I didn’t have to arrive on my own.
2. Help them spot triggers. They knew the trigger as well as I did, and although panic attacks cannot always be prevented, even just to know that someone else knows and understands can help.
3. Give them space but not too much. Last night I left the situation when I needed air. I needed a few moments alone to gather my thoughts. They gave me these few minutes, then came to check in with me. This was really important for me as I would not have been able to re-enter the situation again alone.
4. Take time. Encourage them to breathe, be with them, hold them tight. Often in the midst of a panic attack I tend to dissociate from where I am. A tight hug helps ground me and can help get my breathing back into sync.
5. Just be there and reassure them they are safe – don’t try to rationalize or play it down. It isn’t always rational, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I can stop it. It may start from one single thought and then spreads until I am questioning every single thing, replaying every single situation, imaging the worst about anything that could happen (multiple worst-case scenarios), remembering other things (unrelated) that worry me and doing the same with these things and worrying what people are thinking of me while doing all of these things. My friends don’t try to make me explain or repeatedly tell me it won’t happen.
6. Recognize it, but don’t draw attention to it. They can see it coming better than I can but are also discrete. When I shut off and withdraw, I need time. Last night they kept the conversation going, offering a distraction but also letting me know they recognized I was struggling. Again I often need grounding, so a tight grip on my hand or firm touch on my arm or leg reminds me they are there and I am not alone.
7. Don’t judge – this is the one I find most difficult as I constantly judge myself and condemn my own behavior, seeking to punish it later. Their acceptance lessens this for me because I know there is no need to explain to them, which would be hard because often I don’t even know.
8. Last one – know that they are not their illness, and don’t give up on them. Keep inviting them out.
So, there are my top tips based on what my friends have done for me during a panic attack. Having said that, there is no rule book, and I am truly blessed to have found two wonderful people who understand and accept and want to be my friend regardless. And although I have been able to describe this in some sort of understandable way here for this support group, it saddens me that I will never be able to find the words to explain to them how exactly perfect their support is and how much I completely value it.
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Illlustration by Elisabetta Stoinich