I keep having panic attacks at church. I don’t really know why. I have been having difficulty in crowded places — I think that is part of it. And maybe part of it is that my mind is coming to associate church with panic attacks. I go to church afraid I am going to have a panic attack. I get so nervous about it that I have a panic attack. That’s how panic attacks seem to work. I worry about panic attacks, which causes me to have a panic attack, which causes me to worry about them… It’s a vicious cycle.
Anyways, I know some of my friends and people in the church have been wanting to support me in this struggle, but don’t know exactly how. I thought I would write out how they can be helpful or unhelpful.
1. Please don’t stare at me or come up to me when you notice I am starting to panic.
This is when I am using my coping skills to try to stay calm. When people approach me or even just look at me intensely, I get self-conscious and my anxiety rises quickly. I get easily startled when anxious. People approaching me startles me, and it makes it harder to be calm.
2. Please don’t follow me when you see I am leaving the room due to a panic attack.
When I am having a panic attack, I need to be alone. I need fresh air. I need space. I need rest. I appreciate people following me outside to see if I am OK, but I’m embarrassed about people seeing me in that state. In the end, it’s really not helpful, it just stresses me out.
3. Please do check in with me later to see if I’m OK.
I mean much later. Like in the evening if I had a panic attack in the morning. It usually takes me a few hours of rest to recover from a panic attack. When I am calm again, it is so encouraging when a friend asks me how I am. And with my anxiety, a text or email is less stressful than a phone call because sometimes phone calls overwhelm me. Text me or email me to make sure I’m OK.
4. Make plans with me in the future.
Panic attacks can be so isolating. I feel so alone afterwards. I need time alone to recover from them. But after I’ve recovered, I feel distant from other people. Show me I am still valuable to you by making plans with me sometime soon. Let’s get coffee, go out to lunch, catch a movie. Show me I still matter to you, even when I’m having some problems.
5. Don’t press me to share details about what happened.
I’m embarrassed sometimes that I have these problems. I am fine with you asking general questions like, “What is like to have a panic attack?” or “How do you cope?” But please don’t ask me to give you a play-by-play. It was embarrassing and traumatic and honestly, I don’t want to think about it too much. If I start thinking about panic attacks, then I have more panic attacks.
6. Listen to my story without judgment.
I know panic attacks don’t make sense. They’re not logical. Mental illnesses are not always logical — they are illnesses. It often helps me to talk things over with people. But please don’t try to diagnose me, or judge whether I handled everything well. Please just listen and give me grace.
7. Give me permission to keep having panic attacks.
Sometimes I feel like there is pressure on me to “just stop,” to recover from my problems and be “normal.” I am working hard to be healthy. But the panic attacks may continue for a while. Please try to be OK with that. I am doing my best. I might keep leaving places due to panic attacks. Or maybe I won’t show up places, afraid of being triggered. Either is OK. Show me that either is fine. I am OK the way I am.
8. Ask me how you can help.
There might be something I need or something you can do in that circumstance. Again, don’t approach me right before, during or after the panic attack, but when you check in with me later, ask me if there is anything you can do to help. I don’t know if I will have any ideas, but it is so nice to be asked. It’s nice to know you are there for me.
9. Remind me you still want to be my friend.
I know panic attacks are not very “attractive.” I don’t like the nervous, scared person I seem to be when I have them. Show me in small ways that you still want me in your life. Show me I am OK just the way I am right now. Even if it’s just smiling at me when I come into church, or inviting me to parties, even though I might not feel up to coming. Remind me that you still want me around.
I have wonderful friends who have supported me through my mental illness. But sometimes people don’t know how they can be supportive. Hopefully this list can help.
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Thinkstock photo via Tishchenko.