Watching a person go through a vicious panic attack can be as scary for the observer as it is for the person experiencing it. There are ways to help a patient through a panic attack. While that is true you are not trained medical professionals and if you are unable to distinguish the differences between a panic attack and PTSD flashback you could be placing yourself into harms way.
What is a Panic Attack?
An average panic attack is exactly what it sounds like in the name. Panic attacks can be triggered or happen randomly and without any warning to the patient. Many patients feel panic attacks coming on and that never happens with a PTSD flashback. A panic attack can be described as an undeniable sense of dread or paranoia that something terrible will happen. A racing heart, cold sweats, and chest pain often accompany panic attacks because patients will cause themselves to hyperventilate. Although not physically dangerous to the patient themselves they can incite suicidal behaviors and are hell to experience.
How to Help
What can you do to help someone through a panic attack? Calmly approach the person and gently ask if they are okay. Quietly ask if they are experiencing a panic attack. Ask if they have medication for them and if they do assist them in getting their medication. Ask if they know what triggered the attack. Assert that they are safe, nothing bad will happen, and that this event will pass shortly. Attempt to have the patient focus on their breathing with slow and steady breaths. Often having a patient focus visually on a fixed object such a pencil, mark on the ceiling or floor, or picture can calm them. Repeatedly assure the patient they are not in danger and offer sips of water to drink. Without the use of medication distraction and reassurance are the only ways to calm a patient until it passes.
A PTSD flashback is a completely separate event. The patient or person experiencing one has travelled back in time in their mind to an extremely traumatic event. These generally occur in two types. The first type is the frozen patient who has completely zoned out into their own world. They are no longer conscious of any events happening around them. It is the equivalent of a nightmare while awake. There is nothing you can do except to rouse the patient verbally by calling their name in an attempt to pull them back. The second type is the active flashback and is extremely dangerous to anyone interfering who is not trained in safety restraint techniques and handling PTSD patients. During a PTSD flashback the patient no longer sees their current surrounding or people. They are in a place and time of tremendous pain and horror with the capabilities of becoming extremely violent unintentionally. No person who is not a trained mental health professional should ever attempt to interfere. If the patient is talking about events and people not relevant to their surroundings as if it is an active event they are experiencing a flashback.
Drug-related Anxiety Attacks
Should you see anyone exhibiting anxiety or paranoid symptoms that you suspect to be on drugs do not intervene in any way except to call 911 and report with the situation. Drug users often have these symptoms with the use of stimulants such as meth or even ADHD medication. People who do not require stimulants to calm their central nervous system will experience an extreme adrenal rush and exhibit incredible strength to the point of continuing a physical attack even after being shot multiple times. Do not ever attempt to intervene unless a life is in danger and you are trained in mental health, the police, or are military. These people are not bad, they are a pissed off version of the Incredible Hulk ready to snap without warning. Do not let size fool you. I am an 85lb female who is capable of breaking bones with only my bare hands. Never make assumptions.
As always if you see or hear anyone talking about harming themselves or others call 911 and request help for a mentally unstable person. Mental illnesses are often overlooked by society with deadly repercussions that could have been avoided had only someone not turned a blind eye to the pain of another.
Taking the time to help someone through an anxiety attack may take a few minutes from your day, but it will mean the world to the patient you have helped.