The Silent & Sometimes Secret Struggle with Panic

By May 1, 2016 Blog, Blogs

Despite the growing awareness of mental health, many who suffer from anxiety suffer in silence.  Anxiety affects a person mentally and physiologically, however the symptoms may be inadvertently overlooked by loved-ones. They may try to help by saying things like, “I worry too, just stop worrying” or “it’s all in your head, just think good thoughts”. Well-intended statements often leave the sufferer feeling alienated and misunderstood.
Many people who struggle with anxiety, especially those who experience panic attacks, may work hard to hide it for fear of being judged. They may fear that others will think they are overreacting or being dramatic. Not everyone who suffers from anxiety experience panic attacks, however for those who do, it can be debilitating. The struggle to keep others from knowing how it affects their lives can be overwhelming and exhausting.
You may be wondering how you can better support your loved-ones who suffer from panic attacks. One of the most important things is to provide a safe space for sufferers to share their experiences. It may be tempting to give advice, however the first priority is to listen and to allow loved-ones to explain what panic looks and feels like to them.

While there are some common symptoms of panic, each person experiences a panic attack in a unique, personal way. When you take time to hear from the sufferers without throwing out suggestions or casting judgment, it leaves room for them to feel validated and accepted. Saying things like, “you should just ‘mind-over-matter’ your way out of it” are not helpful. The reality is that panic is not something a person can ‘will themselves out of’. It is, in actuality, related to the fight-or-flight response. For those who experience panic attacks, their fight-or-flight mechanisms are, in a sense, malfunctioning.
One of the most effective ways for individuals to overcome panic is to face the very things that they fear – the things that trigger panic. It can be scary to face these triggers. However, until the brain gets new evidence that the threat does not present imminent danger; the triggers will continue to lead to panic. Avoidance is common for those who experience panic attacks. There can be a false sense of security in avoiding places or situations that have caused panic in the past. The problem is that panic can generalize and new triggers can develop at any time. The good news is that by facing one’s fears and triggers, the brain begins to be re-wired to understand that there is no imminent danger. With this new information, the brain can communicate to the body that the triggers are not dangerous and do not require the body to go into full fight-or-flight mode.
It may be tempting to give reassurance to sufferers and to enable avoidances in hopes of providing protection and minimizing suffering. These efforts will only provide temporary relief. Rather than enabling avoidance, a more effective way to help is to offer support and to encourage loved-ones to face their fears. Point out their successes and remind them that they will be able to handle the discomfort. The more they face their fears, the more empowered they will feel and the closer they will be to lasting relief.