Ask Ada: Help Me Deal With My Panic Attacks!

Plus: Ada reminds us all that grief takes many forms, and it's okay for anger to be one of them.

Welcome to Ask Ada, Folks’ bi-weekly advice column for people impacted by health issues or disability. Want Ada to help you with a problem? Email Ada at or tag @folksstories on Twitter with the #askada hashtag.

Why Isn’t My Friend Sadder Over His Wife’s Suicide?

Dear Ada,

A friend of mine recently killed herself. She was in her thirties, free-spirited and full of life. Just a week or so before she took her life, she and her husband (who I was friends with first) were talking to my wife and I about their plans to soon start trying for a family. And then just as suddenly she wasn’t here any longer.

I miss her, and I don’t know how to support my friend, her husband. He doesn’t seem to be processing her death at all. If anything, he’s very angry with her and has nothing nice to say about her whenever we talk. He says he hasn’t cried about it since the week it first happened. I don’t get it. They seemed like they had a healthy relationship, and I feel like I’m grieving her more than he is. I want to be a good friend to him, but I really don’t know how. How can I get past my loss, and how can I help him through his?

A Grieving Friend

Dear Grieving Friend,

A few years ago I was in a similar situation. The husband of one of my closest friends killed himself. We all attended college together, and I had to grieve the loss of him while also learning how to be there for her.

What I learned from this situation is that grief takes all forms and does not follow any predictable patterns. There is no correct way to feel, no path through healing, and no easy way to forgive the individual for leaving you too soon.

It is also impossible for you to understand your friend’s grief. The loss of a spouse, especially from suicide, is not something someone who hasn’t experienced this can fathom. The first thing you can do to help you both is to acknowledge this as a fact.

The way I see it, your friend is consumed with anger at his wife for stripping him of the future they planned together. He’s angry about her lies of omission— that she hid her pain and sorrow so deeply that even he didn’t recognize the signs. He’s angry that she made a permanent, life-altering decision that would rock every facet of his entire world. He’s angry that he has to wake up every moment for the rest of his life without her beside him.

Grief is not always what we expect. Anger is a normal part of the process.

The anger startles you, because it feels inappropriate. If anything, you expect sorrow. But, as I mentioned earlier, grief is not always what we expect. Anger is a normal part of the process. David Kesson, co-author of two books with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who defined what we know of as the five stages of grief, says, “Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss.”

And while we’re discussing the stages of grief, know that your friend may cycle through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in a nonscripted manner. Kesson explains, “People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.”

The best way you can support your friend is to be a constant in his life. If he wants to talk, listen to him. He doesn’t need your advice or reasoning with. He just needs someone to hear him. If he wants company, but doesn’t want the conversation to revolve around his wife, then just show up. Watch a movie together. Just be. He may want to do things to get out of his house and out of his head. Try new experiences with him. Build more memories. Be there as he takes on each new day.

Whatever you do, don’t avoid him because you don’t know what to do or what to say. No one ever knows what to say. Just showing up consistently — in person, on the phone, through texts or emails — however you can make yourself available, will help.

We like to think that we have the power to help people heal, but your friend is on a very long path that only he can navigate.

And finally, it’s important to take care of yourself, too. You too just lost a person you cared about, and while the pain may not be as severe, you have every right to feel your feelings. Grieve your loss. Talk with your wife and friends when you’re feeling low. Act as each other’s support systems. Swap stories of the good times. Remember the happy moments you all shared each other. Don’t let your memory of her fade, and do what you need to stay healthy while grieving.

If you or someone you know needs support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

How Do I Keep Calm When I Have A Panic Attack?

Dear Ada,

Life is stressful! I’m currently juggling ongoing physical symptoms from multiple autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease and eczema. On top of physical health issues, I’m deep in the grieving process over the loss of a family member and a beloved pet. I’m discovering (with the help of a therapist) that the unpredictable nature of my physical health conditions and coping with loss, triggers tension in my body, resulting in feelings of overwhelm, panic attacks and anxiety. How do you suggest calming down quickly, in the moment, when these feelings unexpectedly pop up in public, at work or while visiting others?

Thank you,

Feeling Frazzled

There’s nothing worse than panicking in public. Not only is your body and brain reacting to whatever stimuli that is causing you severe anxiety, but you’re doing it in front of other people, which just adds embarrassment to the heightened emotional and physical response you’re already feeling.

The first step to calming down during a panic attack is to recognize that you’re having one. During one, a person may feel as if they’re having a heart attack, or worse — dying. Recognizing that this is temporary experience takes the power away from those fears. Here are a few tips to bring you back to reality when you are spinning out of control.

If there’s too much happening around you, it may help to close your eyes for a few moments or minutes as you center yourself. If that doesn’t work, identify an object you can focus on instead. Does it have a unique size, texture, color, pattern, or smell? Touch the object if possible to ground yourself in the moment and describe it to yourself. If focusing on an object is helpful in these moments, it may help to carry a few on you — keychains, for example — that you can use during any future panic or anxiety attacks.

Know your triggers, and don’t make light of the experience. Panic and anxiety attacks can feel terrifying when you are experiencing one.

Next, try repeating a mantra and deep breathing. It can be difficult to think clearly when you’re in the midst of a panic attack, and repetition and speaking calmly will help you work through it. Keep your mantra short. Tell yourself something like: “I am safe and this will pass.”  Then, take one long breath in. Hold it in for a few seconds, and slowly release it. Deep, controlled breathing is what teaches the brain that the body is actually not in danger. Then, repeat the process of mantra, breathing, mantra, breathing, until you move through the anxiety and begin to feel calmer.

Finally, know your triggers, and don’t make light of the experience. Panic and anxiety attacks can feel terrifying when you are experiencing one. If you can identify your triggers, you can put the work in to avoid them when possible. With your current situation, that might mean additional therapy appointments, making more space in your schedule for rest and recuperation, or even massages to reduce the tension in your body.

And remember, as life-altering as these events may feel in the moment, know that they are only temporary, and you will get through them.

Are you facing a problem that is being complicated by a health condition or disability? Folks’ advice columnist Erin Ollila wants to help. Email and tell us your problem.