Seeing a friend or loved one suffering a panic attack can be frightening. Their breathing may become abnormally fast and shallow, they could become dizzy or light-headed, tremble, sweat, feel nauseous, or think they’re having a heart attack. No matter how irrational you think their panicked response to a situation is, it’s important to remember that the danger seems very real to your loved one. Simply telling them to calm down or minimizing their fear won’t help. But by helping your loved one ride out a panic attack, you can help them feel less fearful of any future attacks.
If you have a debilitating fear of being seen negatively by others and humiliated in public, you may have social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia. Social anxiety disorder can be thought of as extreme shyness. In severe cases, social situations are avoided altogether. Performance anxiety (better known as stage fright) is the most common type of social phobia.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is different than having a phobia about something. People with phobias are fearful of something in particular – for example, spiders, heights, or speaking in public. If you have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you have an uneasy feeling about life in general. Often associated with feelings of dread or unease, you are in a state of constant worry over everything. If a friend doesn’t call you back within an hour, you may start to worry you did something wrong and the friend is upset with you. If you are waiting for someone to pick you up and he is a few minutes late – you may start to fear the worst – that he was in an accident, instead of thinking something more minor, like he got stuck in traffic. The feelings are not as intense as those that occur during a panic attack episode; however, the feelings are long-lasting. This results in having anxiety toward your life in general and the inability to relax – what some may consider far more debilitating than a specific phobia to a certain thing or situation, which you could possible avoid. There is no “off” switch. If you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you are experiencing a constant state of worry – and you cannot avoid it, because life, in general, is causing you anxiety.
With panic attacks, we might show them a diagram and explain the fight-or-flight response; their mind or body is trying to help them. If you’ve had a panic attack that came out of the blue, you might become afraid of lightheadedness and avoid activities that spur adrenaline. So we might hyperventilate for a minute in a controlled way to get to the point where they’re not afraid of their own bodily sensation. We work on internal avoidance of those cues that become scary, and desensitize them.
People with panic disorder often worry about when the next attack will happen and actively try to prevent future attacks by avoiding places, situations, or behaviors they associate with panic attacks. Worry about panic attacks, and the effort spent trying to avoid attacks, cause significant problems in various areas of the person’s life, including the development of agoraphobia (see below).