You crawl into bed, ready for a peaceful night’s sleep. As soon as you doze off , you’re awaken by your wife’s shaking hand. “Honey, wake up! Wake up! I think I’m having a heart attack!” When it first happened, you immediately called 911 and made the night-long trip to the E.R. But now, things are different. It’s happening more often, almost every night.
Your husband lost his job, again. It was his third one this year. When you question him about it, he says the same thing, “They’re expecting way too much from me. Those meetings get so intense. I can’t breathe. I can’t sit there. It’s just too much for me. I feel much safer at home.”
You’re daughter is off to college. She’s finally out of the house. After two weeks away from home, you get a frantic call from her. “Mom, Dad, please come get me. I can’t stand it any longer. I’m so afraid. I can’t sleep. I can’t drive. I’m trapped here. The fear is terrible.”
Do any of these stories sound familiar? Do you know someone–a friend, a family member–who is battling fear, crippling anxiety or panic attacks? Are you at a loss of what to say, what to do, how to respond?
The following information is for those of you who know someone battling anxiety and panic attacks but don’t know how to help.
For years, I battled crippling panic attacks and anxiety. My life became very limited in many ways. As a child, my parents had no idea what I was experiencing. I tried explaining these “episodes” to doctors, but they had no idea what I was going through either. Even years later, when I did have a name for this condition, my wife could not really understand what I was going through.
I’m so grateful for the wealth of information that has surfaced over the years regarding panic attacks and agoraphobia–it is providing a lot of good education. But, I’ve come to this conclusion–you will never understand what “this” is like unless you’ve experienced yourself.
When talking with someone about this, realize that you will never fully understand this condition unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Be a very good listener.
“Each heart knows its own bitterness” (Proverbs 14:10).
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19).
Although it wasn’t meant to cause pain, some of the most painful moments in my life came from people who thought they completely understood what I was going through. They would offer advice, scriptures and other “encouraging words” when they had no idea what it was like to experience this hell.
Although you may never understand this condition, take time to learn about it. Learn about the emotional and physical impact this can have on a person’s body and mind. There are numerous books and resources available today. A better understanding will help you encourage and support those who are going through this. Just your desire to want to learn more can be very encouraging. But be careful, don’t talk about something you know “in theory”.
Make an effort to learn more about this condition. Although you may never fully understand this condition, you can learn about it as much as possible.
“Learn to be wise, and develop good judgment” (Proverbs 4:5).
At first glance, panic attacks seem to be a purely mental condition. But, extensive studies have shown that these intense episodes are very physical, affecting our blood pressure, heart rate and breathing. Every one of us has a “fight or flight” mechanism that God created us with. This is most obvious in an emergency situation–a near car crash, a sudden loud noise, a dangerous situation. Adrenaline is released into our bodies causing a physical, chemical reaction in our entire body. Our hands go numb. Our heart beats faster. Our blood pressure rises. Our mind starts to race. Our body is preparing to respond to the danger.
Those experiencing a panic attack have reached this “fight or flight” mode, and they will experience the same physical sensations–rapid heart-rate, tingling hands, racing thoughts. These are normal, physical reactions to the “fight or flight” response.
Validate the person’s feelings and sensations. They are very real to the person going through this. Do not belittle or mock the person’s experiences. Even if the thoughts are irrational, they are still very terrifying to the one experiencing this.
“Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
As I mentioned previously, you should be very cautious about trying to fix something you don’t fully understand. We have lots of theories about what might work and what has worked for us in the past for similar situations, but sometimes our advice can hurt, condemn and confuse someone going through this.
Does that mean we should not encourage and advise someone struggling with this? No. Do encourage them. Do share God’s love with them. Do find ways to help them. But, do so in a spirit of love and compassion.
Let me share some of things people have said that have hurt and confused those struggling with this condition:
“Just snap out of it!” or “Get over it!”
If it were the easy, don’t you think we would? The issues triggering panic and fear usually run much deeper than that. Snapping out of it or getting over it is not as easy as it sounds. Healing takes time. Don’t put any pressure on us to hurry up and get better. Pressure only pushes us deeper into the fear, not out of it.
“It’s just stress. You’ll be fine.”
Yes, stress may be a factor in this, but again, there are deeper issues at hand. Don’t tell me it’s stress. That only causes me more stress which triggers more fear and more adrenaline.
“God has not given you a spirit of fear, but of love, power and sound mind.”
Ah, my favorite. I think I’ve been hurt by this Bible quote more than I care to mention. Yes, I know God has not given us a spirit of fear. And yes, he’s given us a spirit of love, power and a sound mind (1 Timothy 1:7). But by reminding us of that scripture, it’s as if you are saying, “God hasn’t given you a spirit fear. So, why has God left you? Are you in sin? What terrible things have you done to deserve this?” Also, the context of this verse is not about our mental state, but about spiritual gifts. And, the word “fear” in this verse is better translated as “timidity”. So, be careful.
“It’s okay. I understand.”
No you don’t. You do not understand. You cannot understand. Unless you’ve experienced a panic attack or crippling fear first hand, you have no idea what this is like. Yes, you may care. Yes, you may want to help. But, you do not understand. You may sympathize with me, but don’t try to empathize.
“It’s a demon. You need deliverance.”
The Bible talks quite a bit about the unseen world around us. I believe demons are alive and active here on the earth. I believe there are demons today harassing and influencing both believers and unbelievers. I also believe that Jesus Christ has defeated the work of the enemy, as long as we appropriate that work by faith.
But unless God has specifically told you to deal with a “spirit of fear” in someone’s life, don’t immediately classify someone as demonized and start rebuking. The Bible tells us that such discernment requires the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). Those gifted and experienced in such areas should be the ones dealing with this.
I’m sure there are many other “encouraging words” that have been spoken over us. And over time, I plan to extend this list to help others understand what you should not say. But for those who are trying to encourage someone battling with anxiety and panic, listen carefully to the instructions of James 1:19,
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak”
How to respond during a panic attack
If you are with someone who is experiencing a panic attack, it can be quite scary. It may be in the middle of the night while you are sleeping. It may be in the car while you are driving. It may be at the mall, the bank, the grocery store. It can happen anywhere.
First and foremost, don’t get mad at the person. Remember that during a panic attack, this person’s mind has reached the “fight or flight” mode. He or she is trying to respond to some unseen danger. The heart is racing. The breathing has changed. Getting mad will only fuel the vicious adrenaline cycle.
Don’t get mad at the person. Don’t feed the adrenaline with more anger and frustration.
The best response attitude is one of patience and compassion. Realize that this experience is very real to the person going through it. Don’t create an urgency to get through it. Doing so will cause more anxiety.
“Be patient with each other, making allowance for each others faults because of your love” (Ephesians 4:2).
Try to establish your position and what you’re going to say before a person hits the panic mode. This will help the person in the panic to receive your assistance. Sit down and share with your spouse, your friend, your child exactly how you plan to help them during the attack. Agree on a plan.
Prepare and share with the person how you plan to respond. Communicate your thoughts and stradegies before the panic strikes.
Encourage the person that you will not condemn nor mock what you don’t understand.
“Plans are established by counsel” (Proverbs 20:18).
Panic hits. What do you do? Go over your game plan, what you talked about beforehand. Sometimes, the person has a very hard time receiving what you are saying or trying to communicate. Gently get his or her attention. Once you’ve got it, starting talking to him or her, sharing what you agreed upon beforehand.
In many cases, the person’s breathing has become really shallow. You should try reminding the person of this. Maybe you can even count and breathe with the person to help get the person’s breathing under control. Something like, “Breathe in. 1, 2, 3, 4. Hold it. 1, 2, 3, 4. Breathe out. 1, 2, 3, 4. Hold it. 1, 2, 3, 4…”
Also, it helps to remind the person that the panic will peak and then taper off. But, to the person going through this, it will not feel like that. The panic feels like it’s on a never-ending increase headed towards mental explosion. At least, that’s how it feels.
The key to helping the panic taper down is for the person not to fight those strange, terrifying sensations. By fighting it, the person releases more adrenaline causing the feelings to escalate. Remind the person that it will pass, and he or she should not fight or resist those strange feelings. This is where your words can change the entire direction of the panic experience.
Help get the person’s breathing under control. Remind the person that the panic will eventually taper off and that the feelings will pass. And, most of all, help him or her not to fight the feelings. They will pass.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galations 5:22-23).
As I mentioned earlier, take time to learn about this condition. Your willingness to learn more and educate yourself can be so encouraging. One of the best things my wife did was to learn about my condition. Through that, she was able to speak encouraging words to me before, during and after an attack. She knew how to respond when I hit that panic mode. Our preparation times where very helpful for her.
Check out some of the books in our resources section. Reading through this information can be quite helpful in teaching you what exactly a panic sufferers goes through.