No, they can't just "calm down."
When someone is in the throes of a panic attack, it feels to that person like the world is spinning off-kilter and something terrible is about to happen. A wave of fear sets off a fight-or-flight response. Her heart starts to race or she can’t catch her breath.
“The brain and the body have fallen off a cliff in terms of their ability to do anything rationally,” explains Ronit Levy, PsyD, clinical director of the Bucks County Anxiety Center in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
While you might be tempted to tell a friend having a panic attack to shake it off, that would be so wrong in so many ways. If you really want to help a loved one, steer clear of these trite and insensitive responses.
If she could stop it, she would. But during a panic attack, the body thinks it’s in imminent danger and has to find a way to survive.
“In that moment, the logical brain has shut down and the emotional brain–the fight-or-flight center–is in full control. That is the part of the brain that cannot think rationally,” Dr. Levy says.
Your loved one actually is not fine. Having a panic attack causes so much distress that the person cannot control his or her reaction. Dr. Levy equates the amount of anxiety the person is experiencing to “having a gun pointed at your head.”
Plus, an outside observer may not even realize someone is having a panic attack because he or she is skilled at masking symptoms. “It may be like, ‘well, you look fine,’” says Tracy Cummings, MD, staff psychiatrist and a medical director at the Lindner Center of Hope, a Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center affiliate, but that’s little comfort to the person who’s gripped by anxiety.
"Can't you just calm down?"
Panic attacks come on suddenly and can last several minutes or longer, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
A person who regularly gets panic attacks may learn coping skills from a therapist, but “it’s really hard to intervene to stop a panic attack,” Dr. Levy notes. Like telling someone having a panic attack to simply stop, they would calm down if they could.
"Don't worry about it."
Giving someone orders like “Don’t think about it” or “Don’t worry about it” can actually make a panic attack worse.
“Whenever we tell our brain not to think about something or to stop thinking about it, we actually highlight it for our brain,” Dr. Levy explains. “It actually has a paradoxical effect.”
"Suck it up."
Telling someone to “be strong” or “man up” implies that the person is weak or cannot handle his or her emotions. “You’re belittling them for being overwhelmed,” Dr. Levy says.
These kinds of cutting comments or other ways of lashing out in anger only make the situation worse. Getting yourself worked up will only add to the person’s panicked feelings, says Dr. Cummings.
Over time, saying the wrong thing to someone living with panic and anxiety may damage your relationship. Eventually, the panic attack sufferer may conclude that you’re not helpful and not trustworthy, Dr. Levy says.
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Instead, she suggests acknowledging that the person is in distress, that you care, and that you will do whatever you can to help him or her feel safe. “Just being there is tremendously comforting,” Dr. Levy says. “To the person having the panic attack, it means that they're not alone.”