Another problem for survivors can be panic attacks. These are very distressing and often just seem to appear out of the blue. Sometimes they happen during or after flashbacks. Sometimes they happen for no apparent reason that the survivor can think of. A panic attack is very frightening for a person. The heart races and flutters, sweat breaks out, breathing becomes fast and more difficult, the chest becomes tight and painful and there are often intense feelings of extreme terror. Frequently the feelings are so intense that the survivor believes they are about to die.
Because the attacks are so dreadful, the person may try to avoid the place they were in when it happened. Sometimes the panic attacks happen when the survivor leaves the house. This can lead to the person not going to the places they normally would or even stopping going out at all.
Panic attacks may happen when the survivor thinks a particular thought for example the thought of escaping, or sees something that triggers the attack. Ritual abuse survivors may well have been programmed through the abuse and brainwashing to feel terror under certain conditions. The panic attacks make it difficult for the survivor to think clearly and may make it more difficult for the survivor to get help. The panic may also continue to keep a survivor silent and still under the control of the abusers.
There are ways of helping survivors deal with these attacks and the sooner they are tackled, the less chance there is of them developing into a major problem.
Things that can help during panic attacks are:
Be with, and stay with the person to reassure them that they are going to be okay. Keep talking and reassuring throughout the attack.
Remind the person to try to breathe properly. Sometimes breathing into a paper bag can help if the person starts to hyperventilate.
Help them to slowly count while breathing in and out e.g. slowly say, “breathe in, one two, three….breathe out, one, two, three.” Breathe along with the survivor.
Suggest they go to the difficult places with a friend. Even though this will trigger an attack, they will learn that through facing up to it, they can survive it.
Suggest they try self-talking or singing to self when the attack begins. Even counting backwards from one hundred or saying a rhyme or the alphabet has been known to help.
Encourage the survivor to learn relaxation techniques, which can be used during the difficult times.
Encourage the survivor to look closely at their surroundings. E.g. look at the trees, birds, children, the sky, houses, etc. In other words get them to begin to focus outwards of their surroundings rather that inward on self and feelings.
Remind the survivor that they have survived the abuse, they have escaped from the abuse and they can survive and face up to their fears and panic attacks.