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Interview: How can you help a person with anxiety?

Would you like to help someone with anxiety or having a panic attack? Here we give you some professional advice.

Two women sitting on a couch in the middle of a therapy

Due to the social and cultural conditions in which we live, we grew up speculating a lot about mental health, which leads to misinformation. Photo: Pexels

LatinAmerican Post | Vanesa López Romero

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Leer en español: Entrevista: ¿Cómo puedes ayudar a una persona con ansiedad?

In recent years, mental illnesses have become more socially accepted. This has allowed people to speak more openly about them, normalizing the importance of mental health and going to experts if necessary. Possibly at some point in your life, you have felt anxious under stressful situations, but perhaps it has been very rare. Anxiety, when it is not recurrent or affects your daily life, is a response of your body to stressful situations. But surely you have also encountered people who have anxiety, and in their case it is recurrent and it does affect their daily life.

Due to the social and cultural conditions in which we live, we grew up speculating a lot about mental health, which leads to misinformation. Although we have advanced in the way we see this issue, there is still a lot to learn about it, especially for people who may not suffer from these types of disorders. This leads to many times when we do not know what to do in cases in which we have relatives, partners, or friends with anxiety. 

Also read: How to take care of your mental health during the political chaos?

We talked with the psychologist Pedro Garzón, an expert in cognitive behavioral therapy, who explained a little more about this condition and advised us on what can be done to help a person with anxiety.

LatinAmerican Post: What is anxiety?

Pedro Garzón: There are different classifications associated with anxiety, such as generalized anxiety disorder, mixed anxiety disorder, phobic anxiety, among others. When we talk about anxiety we can define it as a mental alteration that is characterized by thoughts, behaviors, and actions that the person does when faced with an event that they consider threatening.

Anxiety is a natural and necessary response, but in some cases, it gets out of hand due to adverse situations that can affect you severely without this necessarily being the case. Anxiety is a less strong emotional state, but this does not mean that it is not significant or maladaptive.

LP: What is a panic attack?

PG: Anxiety has three response channels: physiological, cognitive, and motor. For example, when a person with anxiety goes down the street and may have cognitive responses saying that something terrible is going to happen to them. Then they feel something choking them, or even tachycardia, which would be physiological or motor responses.

Panic attacks are related to anxiety but they are not anxiety. In these, people have much more complex responses that make them completely vulnerable. In this case, the person may feel that everything is going to end. In addition, there is a strong thought at a cognitive level in which it is believed that something terrible is going to happen, the idea of "I'm going to die" is recurrent, which is characteristic of a panic attack.

LP: How can we identify if a person is having a panic attack?

PG: First, their facial expression looks very terrified. Most importantly, they are saying that they are afraid of dying. This is a supremely disabling fear that can be compared to panic. Under these circumstances, people generalize in all situations, some of them may not go out on the street again because of the fear that this may generate.

LP: If we are with a person who is having a panic attack, how should we proceed?

PG: The most important thing is that you, as the person who is going to help, be calm. If you can breathe and do not have catastrophic thoughts, it is most likely that you will transmit that to the person. The idea is not to suddenly approach the person, but little by little, tell him that what is happening are responses that he can control through breathing. You have to tell him to look around and observe where he is and describe what he is seeing.

If the person is very ill, you should take them to a psychologist who can handle the crisis or, failing that, take them to a health center where the crisis can be managed. Generally, the treatment is first psychiatrist and then psychologist. The process with a psychologist is very important, as it is not only about medications. Ideally, they should find a psychologist who knows about post-traumatic stress or who knows about cognitive behavioral therapy.

LP: What alternatives would you give to people who have never witnessed an anxiety attack before or who have never had contact with a person with anxiety?

PG: First you have to understand that we all have anxiety. It is a response that we need to function, as it helps us execute our plans and be competent. Human beings are vulnerable to certain situations that we would see as threatening. Most importantly, statistically, people can have a panic attack in their lifetime. That is, one can have a panic attack at any time, on a plane, in a conflict situation, witnessing an accident, or sudden bad news. All of these could be events that we could categorize as post-traumatic stress.

There is a very important caveat: battered women can generate post-traumatic stress and can have panic attacks. This is very important to mention because it can be associated with something more complex than anxiety.

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Pedro Agustín Garzón Vanegas is a psychologist, expert in cognitive behavioral therapy. He currently has studies in dialectical behavioral therapy. He has patients internationally and you can find him on Instagram and TikTok as @pedrogarzonpsicologo.

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