Assisting Your Spouse With Panic Attacks

Many people are familiar with the term “panic attack” but unsure how to identify one, much less how to comfort and ground their spouse when they are experiencing one in full force. How confusing and frightening it must be to watch your spouse in such a state of distress and not know or understand how to help them. 

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

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In this Article:

  1. What is a Panic Attack?
  2. Physical and Emotional Symptoms
  3. Bodily Responses
  4. How they Happen
  5. What Can I Do?

Many people are familiar with the term “panic attack” but unsure how to identify one, much less how to comfort and ground their spouse when they are experiencing one in full force. How confusing and frightening it must be to watch your spouse in such a state of distress and not know or understand how to help them.

So much freedom and clarity of mind can be experienced when we are able to name what is happening in our bodies. If you’ve never had or seen a panic attack happen before, this awareness is astronomically important to tame these overwhelming symptoms.

What Is A Panic Attack?

Panic attacks tend to come on suddenly and cause an overwhelming amount of fear. Most panic attacks happen out of the blue and while they don’t necessarily have an immediate stressor or trigger that started the attack, many times it begins due to severe stress in a person’s life such as a stressful job, driving, social situations, reminders or memories of traumatic experiences, chronic pain, or even medications a person may be taking just to name a few.

To bring this even further to life, let’s say within the last year your spouse has had a grandparent pass, his/her parents are getting divorced after 34 years of marriage, and he/she is currently feeling undervalued and appreciated at work. One evening, you are driving down the road with your loved one, eager to get home after a long day at work, when out of nowhere you see your spouse struggling to breathe, sweating, arms shaking on the wheel, and appearing nauseous like he/she might pass out. Frantic, you beg your spouse to pull the car over to the side of road and throw the gear in park wondering if you are spending your last moments with them.

Physical And Emotional Symptoms

Physical and emotional symptoms that you may notice in your spouse during their panic attack include:

Physical

– an accelerated heart rate

– chest pain

– shortness of breath

– throat tightness

– sweating

– chills

– hot flashes

– nausea

– trembling

– numbness

– headache

– feeling faint

Emotional

– intense or overwhelming fear

– fear of dying or losing control

– a sense of detachment from the world or oneself

Bodily Responses During A Panic Attack

SPOUSES PLEASE NOTE: 

It is SO natural and normal for your own body to escalate into a state of fight/flight, for your own heart to start beating quickly, and to experience your own anxiety as you express concern with your spouse’s distress. This may happen out of empathy for your spouse, making their pain and worry your own. Should this occur, however, calming your own body in order to calm and care for your spouse is vitally important. Your demonstration of calm will further help to calm your spouse.

How Do Panic Attacks Even Happen?

While experiencing a panic attack, the body perceives a stressor or threat, causing the fight/flight response in the brain to activate. The brain goes into ‘offline’ mode and in that moment, your spouse has no access to the critical thinking or problem solving part of the brain; which can feel incredibly distressing when trying to calm oneself or someone else, much less have the ability to comprehend the why behind the panic. Your initial step is to diffuse the environment and reduce the amount of stress in a very stressful situation as much as possible.

What Do I Do To Calm My Spouse?

  1. Help slow their breathing by taking slow and deep breaths alongside them. This will help de-escalate their distress and your own if you are experiencing any.
  2. Stray from using phrases such as ‘calm down’ or ‘stop panicking’. While this may be distressing to you as well, your spouse, in his/her state of fight/flight is not able to logically comprehend or problem solve this kind of direction.
  3. Once you notice your spouse beginning to de-escalate, ask in short sentences what it is he/she may need. Making assumptions of their needs could re-escalate the situation.
  4. Offering gentle touch, if it is warranted by your spouse, helps your spouse experience your calmness and closeness, which also assists in regulating their body to a steady state.
  5. Be patient. Most panic attacks last less than 10 minutes, however depending on if your spouse has had panic attacks in the past or battles with ongoing anxiety, symptoms can last up to an hour.
  6. Speak Scripture and prayer over your spouse: Isaiah 43 and Psalm 23 are a few passages that highlight the presence of the Lord and His nearness to us as His children. Bringing the Holy Spirit into the moment can also be a sweet reminder to you as the spouse that while you also may feel out of control, His love, care, and Sovereignty is grounding.
  7. Once your spouse begins to calm down, affirm, validate, and normalize what just occurred. Panic attacks can be a vulnerable and exposing experience, so he/she may feel embarrassed or ashamed after the fact. Your reassurance will help keep them in connection with you.

Remember, panic attacks can and do happen.  You and your spouse are not alone.  If you need help, please reach out to our offices.  We would love to support you both.

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