The science of anxiety is being talked about more and yet the hands on ways of supporting one another gets little attention. Witnessing your partner going through an anxiety attack can be as overwhelming as experiencing it. Your partner may need to reach out for professional support or may already be in counselling, yet anxiety attacks can happen anytime and knowing how to respond can be crucial.
Some of the signs of an anxiety attack are accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, sensations of shortness of breath and chest pain. There is often a crippling sense of alertness and a feeling of being outside one’s body. It can be a lonely experience. Having someone’s presence who the person feels safe with can be of enormous support in itself.
Ways you can support themThe first thing you might do is shift the question ‘Why is this happening to my partner?’ to the statement, ‘This is happening to my partner’, so you can focus on them fully. Understanding the potential triggers behind an anxiety attack can wait.
Seeing a loved one in distress can be disorienting so you need to attend to your own experience. Have a feel of your feet on the floor, attend to your breathing and sit near to your partner. You need to show, even if it’s a little scary, that you can be with them through such experience. Stay with clear statements such as ‘I’m here with you.’ or ‘I have my feet on the floor and I’m not going anywhere.’ Sharing what you’re doing can support them in attending to their experience. Your partner might also have a sense of shame as you’re sitting with them, so once their symptoms are lessening you might want to establish eye contact and signal that it is okay, that they’re okay.
What to look out forAs your partner is most likely experiencing a sense of powerlessness too, asking questions can escalate their symptoms further. Trust that they will articulate what they need once they’re able to. Similarly, instructing a person to take deep breaths often just adds pressure on them and strengthens the sense that they have little control over their breathing.
Rushing to reassure your partner by hugging them might also not be helpful. Remember that they’re at their most vulnerable and no matter how close you are to them, they might still experience this as an intrusion. It is also important that anxiety attacks or anxiety as such doesn’t get assigned to your partner as if it is ‘their thing’ as we all have to deal with some amount of anxiety and anyone at any point in their lives can experience such struggle.
Anxiety attack or heart attack?Some of the symptoms of an anxiety attack and a heart attack can be similar. Some distinctions that may support you in differentiating them are that anxiety often produces sensations in the whole of the body that are dissimilar to those of a heart attack, such as a tingling sensation in the feet or tightness in the throat. Whilst your partner can feel as though they need to vomit or have a sense of dizziness, vomiting or passing out generally occur more often when someone is having a heart attack. It is always best to seek immediate medical support though if you’re having doubts which one your partner is experiencing.
Self-supportOnce there’s a sense of stability you might want to withdraw and have a bit of space, be it as simple as getting a cup of coffee or going for a walk. You might also want to reach out for professional support. Remember that supporting a loved one through an anxiety attack is a courageous task and no easy undertaking. Self-support does not mean you need to rely on yourself solely but that you’re able to reach out for help when you feel overwhelmed.
Hear from others who have experienced anxiety here: www.anxietycentre.com
As published on welldoing.org