Empathy makes us human. Sometimes, it’s not enough just to be kind, but also be able to understand how it is from the other party’s point of view.
Thanks to Covid, mental health and wellness has become a big part of everyday conversations. We are more open to talking about our struggles and there are more people willing to come forward to share their challenges.
According to Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH), about 1 in 7 Singaporeans have experienced a mood or anxiety disorder at some point of their lives.
Sometimes, when I start feeling overwhelmed by emotions, I am tempted to bury them or pretend they don’t exist.
You are stronger and braver once you stop denying your feelings. Don’t push them away, let yourself feel. But at the same time, it is important to anchor yourself — to a trusted friend perhaps — so that that person can pull you up when you start to drown.
Still, how well are you prepared to cope with a sudden situation where you need to comfort a loved one (or yourself) who is suffering from a mental wellness issue?
Here are five tips to remember when you are in a position to offer help to someone in need. These can also be helpful for yourself to manage your own emotions if you are alone and desperate.
Acknowledge and validate their feelings
It’s simple but many forget this first step.
There is no “U” in their situation.
If a loved one is going through something that is traumatising them, you can help them process their feelings simply by asking “What are you feeling right now?”
There are other non-verbal ways of reassurance, such as offering your hands for them to hold (don’t grab them!) and asking them how overwhelming their feelings are on a scale of 1 to 10.
You can also ask simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ questions if they are too overcome to talk, so that they can easily respond in a non-verbal manner.
Other simple questions include: “Do you want space?”, “Do you want to go somewhere where you can feel safer?”, or even “Would you like some water?”
Avoid saying phrases that have an implied judgement, like “Just calm down” or “What’s wrong with you?”
It’s important not to diminish a person’s feelings when they are feeling overwhelmed. Very often, we try to rush to find a solution but if you truly want to help, start by being supportive and caring first.
When your friend is calm enough, you can then proceed to ask more open-ended questions, such as “What triggered your panic attack?”, or “Is there anything I can do for you right now?”
Tone is important here. Be sensitive and caring. If they tell you something, listen attentively.
Pay close attention to their mannerisms and gestures and check their symptoms.
It is important not to leave them alone: If they want to go to the hospital, accompany them to the hospital. If they want to go home, get a cab and send them home.
Take deep breaths
Panic attacks are more common than people think. When triggered, it can happen anytime and anywhere. If you start to get a panic attack, you can feel your chest start to tighten and your throat constrict, making it difficult to breathe.
You can also feel very hot, or break out in a sweat, or have a splitting headache.
Spotting an impending panic attack in someone else is a bit more difficult. Breathing becomes laboured, but this isn’t easy to spot. One sign that you can look out for if someone is in distress is when they start fidgeting and not paying attention to their surroundings.
They would look as if they are about to run away or have a breakdown on the spot. Look out for them expressing overwhelming emotions — or start to sweat heavily or complain of feeling too hot, or as if their head is going to explode.
A person suffering from a panic attack often finds it difficult to breathe.
Panic attacks can cause people to feel as if they can’t get enough air into their lungs. It feels as if they’re choking or suffocating, or might even feel like a stroke or a heart attack.
After a childhood trauma, I’ve been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and even now, I struggle with panic attacks. Growing up with PTSD, a trivial episode can trigger a drastic response.
When that happens, I don’t even realise I’m not breathing properly until I start feeling light-headed and my legs feel like jelly. My heart pounds so loud and so fast, it feels like a drum banging in my chest.
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One breathing method I’ve learnt in therapy is to trace the outlines of my fingers as I inhale and exhale.
It’s really simple: Start at the base of your thumb with the fingers of your opposite hand (either hand would do!) and as you trace upwards, slowly breathe in, and after you start to trace downwards back towards the palm of your hand, breathe out.
Continue to do this for each finger and back again, until you start to calm down.
This will help steady your breathing and stop your thoughts from racing as you focus on tracing your fingers.
You can do this exercise by yourself or with another person: It would be good to inhale and exhale and go through the motions together — there’s no need to speak.
Doing it together is another form of non-verbal support, as you patiently wait for them to get used to your presence. Just remember to breathe!
Using our five senses
After steadying your breathing comes grounding yourself.
Often, people disassociate themselves from their surroundings after going through something traumatic. It’s an instinctive response, so it’s important to find something to tether them back to the present moment.
After controlling your breathing, concentrate on your five senses: List out what you see, smell, hear, taste and feel.
Many people use the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to ground themselves but you don’t have to follow it exactly. You can mix it up as long as you use all five senses.
It may seem simple or even childish to some, but it allows a person to regain control of themself and for them to be in the present. It allows you to feel and experience your surroundings without spiralling out of control.
It can be anything — physical touch, food or even some space.
Sometimes, even when someone may be in distress, they might be too paiseh to ask.
Different people deal with their challenges differently. Sometimes, to find out what they need, you have to take the initiative and ask them what they need instead of waiting for them to voice it out.
For example, some might need words of affirmation or comfort — to hear from someone that they are proud of them and that it’s okay to cry.
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Others would prefer non-intimate physical touch, like a hug, a pat on the shoulder or holding hands.
Still others might just need silence and space to themselves.
You never know if you don’t ask.
Offering to do something for them shows how much you care and how you’re there for them.
Asking for a response also gives them an opportunity to control their surroundings and decide for themselves what they want.
Checking in and being available
Lastly, consistency is key.
If you see a friend experience a panic attack, it may be an indication that they often go through such trauma. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean that they don’t have to deal with it often by themselves.
It’s important to let someone know that they’re not alone.
It’s important to be supportive and to offer help when they need it.
It’s important to be present — not just for the good times but the bad times too.
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Reach out. Text, or visit. Ask if they’re doing okay or simply spend time with them — at home or out of the house.
In the words of singer Richard Marx: “Wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be right here waiting for you.”
Crisis Helpline and Suicide Prevention
- Mental Health Helpline/Institute of Mental Health : 6389 2222 (24 hours)
- Hotline/Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) : 1800 221 4444 (24 hours)
- Singapore Association of Mental Health :1800 283 7019 (Mon to Fri 9am to 6pm, except on PH)
- Care Corner Counselling Hotline (Mandarin): 1800 3535 800 (daily 10am to 10pm, except on PH)
- Support for Wellness Achievement Programme (SWAP) Hotline: 6389 2972 / 9017 8212 (Mon to Fri 9am to 5pm)
- Tinkle Friend: 1800 274 4788 (Mon to Fri 2.30pm to 5pm)
- Helpline/Limitless: www.limitless.sg/talk
- Singapore Silver Line: 1800 650 6060 (Mon to Fri 8.30am to 8.30pm, Sat 8.30am to 4pm)