Witnessing a student having a panic attack can be distressing, and many staff find themselves wondering how best to support students. There are a few simple steps you can follow and these are worth all staff knowing. If you have students who regularly have panic attacks, it’s worth discussing these suggestions with them and asking if they have any suggestions of their own so that you can provide tailored advice to staff who regularly work with that student.
Just be there
Having a panic attack is a terrifying feeling and one that can make you feel very alone. Just being present can make a huge difference to the student who is suffering. It will make them feel a little less out of control of the situation which is likely to shorten the duration of the attack.
Unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t leave someone alone whilst they’re having a panic attack. Call for help or send another student, but remain steadfast by the sufferer’s side and remind them that you are there and that you will not leave them. Talking calmly to the student will help to ground them and realise that you are by their side even if they are sat with their eyes closed.
Tell them that this will pass
Panic attacks typically only last a few minutes; our bodies cannot maintain an extreme stress response for sustained periods of time. Reminding the student of this and reassuring them that their body will begin to calm soon can be helpful. Take it one minute at a time and help the student remember they only ever need to get through the next minute and that with each passing minute they will be closer to the end of the attack.
There are several feelings that accompany a panic attack, but one universal feeling is a loss of control, both of the general situation and of the sufferer’s own body. When your heart is racing, your breathing is out of control and you feel like you might die, it’s hard to feel in control of things. Try to gently assert control of the situation as this can feel deeply reassuring for the student. You might not feel very in control but it’s time to employ your best acting skills. Talk in a calm, measured manner, explain simply and carefully what is happening now, what you are doing to help and what will happen next.
Panic fuels panic so it’s most important that you control your own anxiety when responding to someone else’s panic attack. You should also ask other students to move away and give the sufferer some space as this will make the whole situation feel calmer too and abate any worries the sufferer has now or later about how many peers witnessed their attack.
Don’t make assumptions or be dismissive
Don’t assume that you know what has caused the panic attack, don’t assume to understand and don’t be dismissive of the cause if it becomes clear. This is not a time for platitudes… Panic attacks can often be an extreme reaction to a relatively minor trigger but that does not make them feel any less terrifying to the sufferer who will often feel like they are dying. Being told not to be silly, or that there’s nothing to worry about is insensitive at best and panic-fuelling at worst
Focus on breathing
It can really help a panic attack to pass if the sufferer is able to take control of their breathing. Some people advocate the use of breathing into a paper bag, others try to slow the sufferer’s breathing by counting with them as they breathe in and out and another strategy is to imagine blowing bubbles. It doesn’t really matter what strategy you use, but sit with the sufferer, talk to them about their breathing, encourage them to actively think about it and really focus on slowing it down and taking control of it. This may take some time and you may have to repeat yourself frequently. Stick with it. You will get there. Actively breathing with them can help too – taking big, deep, slow breaths in and out will give the student something to try and regulate their breathing against.
Give the sufferer space and time
Once the immediate signs of the panic attack have passed, you might think the student should be able to continue as normal, but this is not always the case. It can take quite some time to ‘come down’ from a panic attack and if possible the student should be given space and time to recover before being expected to continue with lessons. During this time it’s helpful if they can be accompanied and be somewhere where they feel safe without feeling they have to talk about anything unless they want to. Some people find walking is helpful whilst other like to watch TV or listen to music.
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The development and progress of students is influenced dramatically by the care provided by teachers and support staff. The following one day courses cover in more depth sensitive issues that will help you understand and be able to care better for students.