Supporting a person with Panic Disorder (2)
It takes a special person to support a friend who suffers from panic
attacks and is using exposure therapy to recover from their condition.
Patience, perseverance, understanding, and a caring nature are essential
to facilitate recovery. But with help, you can learn to assist your
friend overcome this debilitating condition. Following on from our previous
article in this series, here are some more tips to move your friend
- Accept that it is up to your friend to decide what they can and
cannot do in each session. It is not up to you to set the goals, but
the sufferer. The phobic person feels they have lost control of their
lives due to the panic and anxiety they suffer, and the whole point
of exposure therapy is to give the sufferer back a sense of control.
Hence it is imperative that the sufferer decide on the goal. Resist
the temptation to push the phobic person just that little bit further.
An hour of good progress can be rapidly compromised by persuading
the sufferer to do more than they feel comfortable with.
- Develop a set of coping statements with your phobic friend. Rehearse
them together prior to the exposure session. If possible, write out
these statements on cards, so they are readily accessible to both
you and your friend. When anxiety strikes, be ready to encourage your
friend to repeat them. Alternatively speak out these phrases to your
friend so that they can hear them and take them on board.
- If your friend starts to lose control during a practice session,
calmly reassure them and ask them what they would like to do. If they
wish to leave the place where the panic has occurred, then go with
them to another place where they feel more comfortable. Sit quietly
with them. Alternatively, they may wish to move around to release
the excess adrenalin in their body. Repeat that you will not leave
them and that they are going to be all right. When they express thoughts
of failure and despair, reassure them that setbacks happen and that
the next session will be different. They may recover enough in the
current session to want to repeat what they have unsuccessfully tried
to do. If so, calmly repeat the process and encourage them every step
of the way.
- Praise is very important to a person suffering for Panic Disorder.
Although they may have achieved a simple task such as buying a toothbrush,
remember that this is the phobic’s equivalent of you or me going
to the moon. It is terrifyingly scary for an extremely phobic person
to undertake even the most simplest of tasks. And while they may be
euphoric about achieving the goal of walking to the mailbox and back,
they are also very much aware of the insignificance of that task to
the everyday person, indeed even to themselves prior to becoming ill.
The phobic person therefore needs a lot of praise and reassurance.
You as their friend are in an excellent position to appreciate the
huge achievement they have made. Be plentiful with the praise!
- Be prepared for a long journey of recovery. If you think this process
with take a week or two at most, you’d be wrong! Expect to devote
up to twelve months towards helping your friend overcome this condition.
If you feel that you cannot commit to anywhere near this time frame,
be upfront right from the start. Phobic people need stability in their
lives and starting a program only to bail out of it after 4-5 weeks
just as progress is being made will do harm to your friend. Be fully
aware of what you are committing to before doing so.
- Be consistent. Be in the place where your friend has asked you to
be when they attempt to undertake a task on their own. Do not wander
off, consumed with your own agenda. When you are out doing exposure
therapy, it is your responsibility to give your friend your undivided
- Take a break when you need to. If you’re not up to a session
on a particular day, say so. Phobic people are generally very sensitive
individuals and will pick up on your distracted mood and feel insecure.
Reschedule for another day.
Being a support person for your phobic friend will be slow, frustrating,
and often difficult. However the rewards of seeing your friend free
from the prison of their own mind will be worth it. Good luck!
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