Official blog of Dr. Jerry Kennard, psychologist & author

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

How to Support a Panic Sufferer

Left to their own devices a panic sufferer with agoraphobia may be reluctant to leave the security of their home. Those with less severe symptoms can often get by with very familiar routes, but have much great concerns about venturing further unless accompanied by someone they trust.

This often puts the supporting person in a unique situation. They may feel the burden of responsibility despite perhaps being flattered by the trust being afforded to them. They may find some days easier than others and some situations more taxing to cope with. They may be puzzled as to why the person they support appears capable of functioning with but not without them. Here are a few tips to help things along.

Keep in mind that anyone who experiences high levels of anxiety tends to have good and bad days. The fact that you were able to go around the shops yesterday does not necessarily mean you’ll be able to today. It may be frustrating but try not to provoke the person by pointing out obvious discrepancies in their behavior. It’s almost inevitable they already know and there’s a danger they will feel even further embarrassed and self-conscious and use this as a reason to withdraw more.

Panic can hit quickly. You may find yourself strolling along only to find the person with you suddenly comes to a halt and is beginning to struggle with their breathing. They probably look extremely alarmed and may start to shake, stagger and reach out for something to grab hold of. In situations like this the person is feeling very unsafe and extremely insecure. Assuming both you and they realize this is a panic event and not a genuine medical emergency, you can help by physically supporting the person – just holding the arm will probably do. Remind them this has happened before, that they will be alright, and to remember to breath.

If things are going well, don’t press the person to do more than they want, or assume they are capable of more. In most cases if the person feels up to it, they will suggest the course of action.

Take what the person says to you at face value. If they say they need to go, they mean it. If they ask not be left alone, don’t leave them. Specific requests like this occur when the person feels vulnerable.
Keep in mind that they are extending their usual boundaries by being with you and it may not take much to tip the balance.

There may be occasions when a panic attack happens and there’s really nothing you can do about it. Always remember that their panic is never your responsibility. You are doing what you can to give support and that’s all that can reasonably be expected.

A successful relationship is based on give and take. For the panic sufferer it isn't pleasant being dependent and if they are male their difficulty may be enhanced. Establish equality is important for esteem and confidence. The role of supporter in one context doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek help, assistance, advice and so on in other contexts.