How can you explain anxiety and panic attacks to those who care about you but have never experienced either?
Last Updated: 12/18/2017 at 4:40am
Sarah Archer, LMFT
Marriage & Family Therapist
As a Licensed MFT I work with clients to more effectively address, process and learn skills to manage the problems that prevent them from living the life they want.
Top Rated Answers
Let them know that panic attacks and anxiety produce very real psychical effects such as rapid heart rate, chest pain, muscle tension, headaches, overwhelming feeling of fear that something catastrophic is about to happen. Some people may think anxiety and panic attacks are all mental but have no idea the physical pain they cause
I look at it this way: All smoke detectors go off with smoke. Some go off because you burned dinner. Some go off because your house is on fire. Folks with anxiety disorder have a sensitive sensor. Sometimes I ask folks if they ever have had a nightmare where they are being chased and they get that fight or flight feeling. Now, imagine getting that feeling, but you're not being chased. Your baseline is that, and then when triggers impact to you, the response is off the charts.
Your heart starts racing, almost like it wanted to get out of your chest. You feel this painful knot in your stomach and your throat, this weight in your chest. It makes it so hard to breathe calmly, to keep your mind cool. Your head is filled with a thousand thoughts and all you want to do is hide and cry.
Imagine having a presentation in front of hundreds on experts on a subject you don't know very much about. You are not prepared at all. The imagined feeling you have when entering the stage in a scenario like that, that's anxiety for me. Only, there is no presentation, no experts, only me and my feelings which comes out of apparently nowhere.
There really is not set-in-stone way to explain it. People experience these things differently. But explain to them the physical rush of it, how it feels in your stomach, your chest. Explain how clearly or not clearly you can think while you're going through them.
Best way you can. Panic attacks feel similar to an asthma attack. You struggle to get your breath, which makes you panic more and then you struggle more. Anxiety is like feeling nervous and anxious, all the time. You can't help the way you feel.
Panick attacks are easy to explain because most people understand a heart attack. Just tell them that your heart races and you can't breathe, just like people having a heart attack.
It's very difficult to do, especially since panic attacks manifest themselves differently in different people. But I try to ask the person to pretend they are walking casually through the woods and all of a sudden find yourself face-to-face with a large bear. The feeling of panic and terror and the physical symptoms that go along with it are like a panic attack, but they come over us without without any bear and for no reason we can see or predict. It's extra stressing because you never know when it's going to happen. There could be a "bear" around every corner.
Take the time to realize how you feel during a panic attack that almost anyone can relate to. Like when you're on a roller coaster and in that moment before you head straight down from the very top, you're heart races and you might feel a little nervous, maybe you get a little shaky and get sweaty palms, and there are a lot of thoughts and emotions going through your mind in such a short amount time. Sometimes it happens for no reason, even though you know there's nothing to worry about, or you just don't know what the reason is for these reactions. That's just to give a basic idea of how you could possibly explain it. Everyone is different and will experience it in different ways. But personally I think relating it to something they've experienced is a good way to help them understand.
Stresses and worries about things that may or may not be real become overwhelming, and more than can be managed. The reality of the world seems too much, and often, anxiety becomes physical - eg raised heart rate, trouble breathing, shaking. Dread feels like it's hanging over one and consumes all. Even with knowledge that this is irrational, it seems impossible to escape.
The only way I could possibly feel like I've answered this properly is if I explain how they affect me. Panic attacks make me feel like everyone is watching me and expecting something from me. Like they can see right through me to my soul and they can see every secret and every fear and everything I've ever wanted hidden. And it's mortifying to me. It feels like whatever has triggered that attack is bringing up that same feeling I've had from a similar experience in the past. And I feel like I lose control of my body. And I can't stop myself from losing control of my emotions and everything around me. It's like spiraling down a Rollercoaster with no safety belt and no restraints and I'm about to turn upside down through some loops and twists.
Create a scenario they would most likely understand. Such as relaying it to feelings they’ve had. Like you know that feeling you get when you lean too far back in your chair or miss a step on the staircase? That little clip of your stomach, quickened heartbeat, for that half a second you feel like you’re about to die. So imagine that feeling but x10 and 24/7. That’s what having anxiety feels like. But an actual attack is so much worse.
Let them know it's like drowning; you can't breathe, you're afraid, it's something that needs to be attended to right now and can't be ignored.
Its not easy to explain nor easy to understand a feeling that one has never been through. If someone you care about isn't sure how to help you deal or cope with anxiety, there are several things you can do to help them become more aware of you situation. You can gather information on your situation so they can read over the material and be more aware of what it involves and the details behind it. Also, if you are seeking therapy or counseling services, you might also want to invite them to attend a session with you. Sometimes it can be better explained by a professional as to what the situation entails and how to incorporate coping skills for all involved. Even though one can never fully understand a situation unless they experience it, you can do things on your part to help them get to a place that they understand better what you are dealing with.
Try to ask your doctor or go online to youtube on a website that is geared to provide visuals about that topic.
There are some amazing books and online information you can use to try and explain anxiety and panic attacks to people who have never experienced it. One book I used that really helped is "self help for the nerves" by Dr Claire Weekes. This book lists every symptom and explains why each one happens and is really helpful to give insight to those who have never experienced anxiety or panic attacks. You can also talk to people and explain how you feel, which can be difficult. One person explained a panic attack as "when you are walking down the stairs and miss a step almost falling, for that split second you experience panic, a panic attack are those feelings but magnified to unbearable levels and longer lasting"
Anxiety is a common thing, the average person experiences anxiety on a regular basis, it's human instinct, but some people experience it more intensely than others. Panic attacks could be from blanking out, to having the following; chest pounding or increased heart rate, sweating, tremors or shakes, short of breath or the feeling of being smothered, choking sensation, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal discomfort, feeling dizzy or light-headed or faint, feeling as if things or you are unreal, fear of losing control/going crazy, fear of dying, tingling feeling in extremities, and chills or hot flashes. It's your mind telling you you're in danger in a situation that has no danger, it's feeling terrified.
Anxiety is like stress that doesn't go away it always affects you and it's hard to cope with sometimes. Panic attacks are the worst you feel doomed when you're in the middle of one nothing's right. you're scared. Panic attacks can be a little shaky to seizures. It depends on the person
We can always share what goes on with in us to someone who cares. It is okay share. Yes, there will be times where the person may not understand because he/she hasn't experienced it. We can atleast ask them to listen to us because listening and talking helps a lot.
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