Five Things Panic and Anxiety Sufferers Wish You Understood
Although I don’t have a panic disorder, my anxiety occasionally manifests as panic attacks. My first panic attack in more than a year happened in what I would have thought would be a safe and supportive environment: I was not in public place, and I was with two of my closest friends. But it turned out to be less than ideal, and I was reminded of just how misunderstood anxiety and panic can be among those who haven’t experienced it firsthand.
I was given the classic “Just relax!” treatment, and it was clear that my friends didn’t understand what was I was going through or how to respond even after I tried to explain. As their reactions grew more defensive and dismissive, I felt abandoned and alone, and became even more panicked.
The experience got me thinking about how frustrating, embarrassing and painful it can be to suffer from panic attacks, and what I wish people understood about them.
Panic and anxiety disorders are not the same thing as your stress. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I try to explain anxiety and panic attacks to people who don’t have them, and they refer to what they do when they’re “stressed,” or they acknowledge that I may be “stressed out” about an issue, but point out that I’m overreacting. While stress and anxiety can certainly go hand-in-hand, everyone experiences stress – but not everyone experiences panic attacks and anxiety. Calling someone “stressed” when they tell you they’re having an anxiety or panic attack feels invalidating, and only makes the sufferer feel misunderstood.
I’m not just being dramatic. Panic attacks are not a clever ploy for attention or sympathy. They are embarrassing and extremely distressing, even traumatic, for those who have them. Frequent panic attack sufferers often grow deeply ashamed and live in fear that they could have another debilitating panic attack at any moment. In fact, while agoraphobia is commonly known as a fear of crowds or public spaces, one of the causes of this phobia is actually fear over having a panic attack in a situation where help or quick escape may not be available. So remember, we aren’t seeking attention for the wrong reasons, and we aren’t looking for your pity — we want you to support us.
If I could “just relax,” I would. This, in my opinion, is one of the most baffling responses to a person in a state of panic or severe anxiety. No one actually enjoys their panic attacks, and they certainly wouldn’t opt to panic if they could simply “just relax.” I often wonder if it’s actually possible for people without anxiety disorders to relax on cue when they’re upset or worried about something. My guess is that they can’t, and that this advice often comes from a place of discomfort or eagerness for the panic sufferer’s attack to come to a stop. Just like telling someone to “stop feeling sad” when they’re depressed, telling someone who’s having a panic attack to relax or calm down is not helpful – and not even a possibility.
Yes, I realize that I’m overreacting and irrational. No, you don’t need to remind me of that fact – trust me, I know. During a panic attack, the body is being told that it’s in imminent danger – the brain generates a flood of stress hormones and flight-or-flight mode takes over. This is not a time where it’s possible to for me to think rationally, even if I could reason with myself over the same issue when not in the middle of a panic attack. Instead of pointing out that I’m being irrational, help me rationalize. Talk me through the situation, remind me what my options are, but please hold the judgment toward my “overreaction.”
If you don’t know what I need, ask. One of the things I commonly hear from those who have loved ones with panic or anxiety disorders is that they just don’t know what to do when their loved one is having a panic attack. The answer to this is simple, really: Just ask! Sometimes just hearing someone say, “I’m here for you — let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you,” can be incredibly comforting. While the needs of panic sufferers vary, asking if there’s anything you can do lets the person know that you support them and helps him feel safe – which can ultimately help bring the person out of an acute state of panic.
Generally, panic and anxiety sufferers want to feel understood, cared for, and safe with you. They don’t want to worry that you’re looking down on them, as that can further fuel a panic attack. It may be tough for you to understand what they’re going through, but you don’t have to personally relate to show compassion and support. Keep in mind that for an individual struggling with anxiety, a good support system can make all the difference in the world.