Deidre Ashley

Deidre Ashley

We all experience anxiety, stress and worry. Anxiety is a normal response to stressful life events and can even be helpful in some circumstances. However, when it becomes excessive and beyond what is appropriate for the situation, it can disrupt daily functioning.

Anxiety disorders affect roughly 40 million individuals each year, or 18% of the population. It’s the most common mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Panic disorders, which fall under this category, are experienced by 2.7% of the population.

Panic attacks can be terrifying experiences, not only for those having the attack but also for those around them. Symptoms can become so intense that it is common for individuals to end up in emergency rooms. Knowing a bit of mental health first aid in order to recognize what’s happening and respond can be helpful.

Mental Health First Aid, a national program that offers education on mental illness and substance abuse, describes a panic attack as “a sudden onset of intense anxiety, fear or terror that often occurs for no clear reason.”

Panic attacks can present suddenly and seemingly without warning at any time.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the disorder can manifest in late teens or early adulthood and tends to affect women more often than men. The cause is not known, but research support a combination of biological and environmental factors, including family history, life events, substance abuse and cognitive distortions that exaggerate physiological response.

Attacks may vary but will usually peak within 10 minutes or so and may cause the individual to feel fatigued afterward.

Once people have a panic attack, the fear of having another can become so great that they may begin to avoid situations in which attacks may occur. If not treated, the condition can affect almost every area of an individual’s life.

Only about a third of people who experience panic attacks will seek treatment, though they are very treatable. Psychotherapy, biofeedback and medications can all be helpful, and so can making changes in diet and exercise. Panic attacks can resemble serious health problems, such as a heart attack, so it is important to seek medical help if you experience symptoms.

Once you recognize the symptoms, how can you help someone having a suspected panic attack? Mental Health First Aid classes give some direction in responding.

First, remain calm and speak in a reassuring but confident manner. Speak slowly, using short and clear sentences, and avoid negative reactions.

Let the person know you are concerned and willing to help.

Ask if he knows what has happened or has a history of panic attacks.

If you are unsure whether it is a panic attack or a serious health condition, check for a medical alert bracelet, follow any instructions and seek medical assistance.

If the person knows she is experiencing a panic attack, reassure her and ask if she would like assistance. Reassure her that you understand the fear and anxiety she is experiencing feels very real.

Calmly remind the person that he is safe and that the symptoms will pass. Ask him how you might be able to best assist him.

Stay with the person until help arrives or the panic attack has ended.

Once the attack has ended, offer resources for learning more about panic attacks, such as the Anxiety and Depression Association and Encourage the individual to speak with a health professional if the attack persists.

To learn about Mental Health First Aid and to find classes near you, visit or call the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center.

The Counseling Center will be offering a free, eight-hour class to the public in August.

Deidre Ashley is executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center. She is a licensed clinical social worker and has a master’s degree in social work. Contact her via

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