Don’t Panic! Or, Why ‘Calm Down’ Never Works

As a self-proclaimed geek and lover of all things Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-related, the irony has not escaped me that I am talking about panic today and one of the premises in this series is “Don’t Panic”. Although this phrase may work in fiction, it tends to be less than effective when supporting someone you care about navigate through a panic attack (or a series of them) as the case may be. Although I understand the desire to help in some way, what we say to someone going through this is every bit as important as the action of helping itself.

In my experience, it is scary not only in experiencing a panic attack personally (and I have 25 years’ experience with this) but it is also difficult watching someone else go through this experience. It is important to understand that when we are telling someone not to panic, or to calm down, this can be coming from our own feelings of discomfort in witnessing another person in pain rather than a helping response. This is not to say that the person witnessing does not want to help the other person alleviate their panic, but the knowledge of where this feeling originates from is important in establishing empathy, which is an important factor in helping a person through a panic attack.

Generally speaking, the quickest way to respond to our own discomfort when someone else is panicking is to tell them not to panic. This can come through in a variety of ways including “calm down”, “there is no reason to panic”, or even simply, “stop it”. But this does not work, and the reason it doesn’t work is because we do not need advice in this moment; we need support. Chances are, we understand on some level that we are okay, but the fight or flight response that kicks in is basically raw instinct; we are no longer utilizing the part of the brain responsible for thinking and reasoning, and therefore, we cannot reason our way out of a panic attack either.

What we can do, however, is to utilize strategies that will help us to re-regulate and bring us back to the point where we can use reason. Breath regulation works. Grounding techniques work. Distraction techniques work. When I speak of breath regulation, I am not only talking about deep breathing exercises. Although this can help some people in the moment, it is not always helpful for everyone or in every situation. Other things that naturally regulate breath are things like singing, exercise, and laughter. Many years ago I read that the reason these help regulate breathing is because when you do these activities you are forcing your body to breathe in a regular pattern, which prevents hyperventilation. In recent years both in managing my own disorder as well as working with clients, I have become a supporter of this theory.

Grounding is useful as well, but it is important to understand that when a person is in active panic mode, they will probably not be able to process anything complex, so it is best to keep things very simple in this moment. For example, I know that a lot of people like the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise (name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, one thing you can taste) however, this is often too complicated for someone experiencing an intense panic episode, as we are no longer in ‘thinking’ mode. Instead of doing this exercise, I usually suggest starting with one sense at a time – “look around the room and name everything that is blue” is often more successful than an exercise involving five steps when you are basically incapable of cognition. You can then move on to other colors, shapes, and then incorporate the other senses.

I have also observed that generally one of the first responses is to ask the person why they are panicking. Although in theory I understand the reasoning for this – after all, we are supposed to get curious as to the ‘why’ of something, yes? This is understandable, but it is important to note that we actually might not have any idea why we are having a panic attack – often it is the body’s response to too much stimuli that has built up over time and there is no ‘one single action’ that has occurred, causing the panic. In this case, asking a person why they are panicking is often less than helpful, because they cannot pinpoint the reason – and now they have the additional pressure of not knowing why it’s happening, which only exacerbates the panic.

It is alright for us to not quite know how to help; we do not have to be the voice of reason, nor do we have to have all the answers – in fact, it is probably best if we don’t. A person having a panic attack is not necessarily looking for a solution to the problem of panicking; they know there is no solution in the moment. What they need more than anything else is the support of another person who is willing to sit with them in their panic and accompany them while they ride it out. In that moment, asking them what we can do to help them is often more effective than asking them why they are doing it in the first place. This communicates another person’s willingness to sit with them in that discomfort without offering advice or solutions, and just exist in that space with them.

Helping someone through a panic attack can be challenging for both the person experiencing it as well as the respondent. Knowing how not to respond is as important as knowing what positive actions to take in order to be the best support for someone going through this. Keen awareness of self is key to being a helper, as is getting comfortable sitting with someone else in their discomfort. As with most things in life, each person and situation will be different, but having the tools to respond positively and knowing how and when to use them are crucial to a panicking person’s recovery, both in the moment and beyond.

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