The Lower Brain: What Do I Do When My Girlfriend Has Panic Attacks?

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In this week’s edition of The Lower Brain, Sara Benincasa tries to help a guy figure out how to respond to his girlfriend’s panic attacks.

Dear Sara:

My girlfriend has been getting panic attacks for years. We’ve been dating since 2016, and this year in particular has been tough for her – and thus for me as well. She finished school and started her first teaching job in August and I know she’s stressed. She makes it to work on time but sometimes texts me from the bathroom freaking out on break. She also wants to go to work, do her job, come home, and then nothing else. Our life has gotten fairly boring as a result. Sex has certainly gone out the window.

I try to be understanding. I don’t have panic attacks or anxiety stuff and I tell her to relax, have a glass of wine at home, take a bath, etc. None of it works and I don’t know what to do. She only feels she can tell me about this. I would say to see a doctor but she’s so embarrassed, I think she’d freak out. Can you help?


Confused And Worried

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Dear CAW:

Heck yes, I can help! I majored in panic attacks at the University of Anxiety Disorders, New Jersey Campus. Seriously though, I’ve had panic attacks since I was 8 years old. I didn’t get diagnosed until I was 16, and I didn’t get on the right medication for me until I was 21. I really appreciate you writing to me about this, because it gives me the chance to do something many others have done for me: help a gal with severe anxiety.

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When she has a panic attack, her body goes into the fight-or-flight response. She grows tense, probably sweats more and/or feels tingles in her hands or feet. Her pupils may dilate a little. She may feel her heart pounding as more adrenaline is released into her body. She may grow nauseated as some blood flow is diverted from her digestive system to her cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Her quadriceps may tense. In every way, her body is preparing her to fight or run away from mortal danger.

Now imagine how confusing that is when all you’re facing is the prospect of speaking in front of a group, or getting in your car, or going to the movies. And imagine how frightening it is when this awful feeling comes on out of nowhere.

You can’t fix it. And you must tell her, “I love you and I support you but I cannot be your only support. This one is above my pay grade. It’s time to get professional help. I’m happy to give you a ride to your first appointment!”

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First things first: she should talk to her general practitioner to rule out other medical issues. Then, she should see a reputable professional who specializes in treating anxiety issues. This could be a psychologist, licensed counselor, social worker, or psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is the only one of these folks who can prescribe medication. In your state, a nurse practitioner may be licensed to prescribe medication as well. But what’s most important is that she see someone for counseling.

Whether or not she chooses to take medication, she can help alleviate some of these symptoms through breathwork, psychological techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness training, overall stress reduction, and more. Personally, I have found medication to be of great value to me as one tool in my toolkit. But I have many other tools, too! Not every medication is right for everyone. Not every breathing technique is right for everyone. Not every mental health practitioner is right for everyone.

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This is a journey. There will be bumps in the road. There will be wrong turns that lead her to right turns. Your job is to maintain a steady, calm demeanor and to encourage her to help herself. Set appropriate boundaries, maintain focus on your own goals, and trust that if she chooses to engage in a search for her own recipe, she will assemble the ingredients.

You can give her a few presents: peppermint or lavender essential oil as aromatherapy, books like Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, relaxation audio albums like those by Belleruth Naparstek, or a goofy t-shirt that says “I Can Do This,” or whatever.

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There is plenty of hope and help for anxiety. I used to be afraid to leave my house because I was so ill with agoraphobia, and now I travel all the time. I have my moments, but we all do. We just keep moving forward.

Good luck to you. You sound like a great partner. And good luck to her!