Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Little Black Yippy Dog Does Not Want a Hug

Let me add my voice to the “No! Don’t do that!” chorus, because that’s not just the opposite of help, but actively dangerous and skeevy as all hell.

First, let me introduce you to my imaginary dog Yippy, who is my metaphor for anxiety. The world is a terrifying place when you’re a nervous little black dog, so he barks at everything all the time.

This metaphor works particularly well for this trash advice, because dogs in general really don’t like hugs. A dog might accept a hug from a loved and trusted human, but a random acquaintance who picks Yippy up and gives him a hug is likely to get bitten. If he’s scared or agitated enough, and you ignore the warning signs, you might get bitten even if he knows and likes you.

Likewise, if you randomly grab me against my will while I’m having a panic attack, and continue to hang on while I’m struggling to get away, I make no promises that I won’t deck you. I’ll probably be with it enough to realize that this is a misguided attempt to help, and try to fake calm long enough to get your grabby hands off me, but that’s not a guarantee.  And if you try that with someone who has PTSD and is in the middle of a flashback? Bad call.

Panic attacks are different for everyone, but when I have one, I often feel trapped and warm, like the room is closing in on me and I can’t get enough air. Putting your warm body up against me and closing me in is going to make both of those things worse, and be the exact opposite of help.

One thing that strikes me about this advice is the many ways in which it’s dehumanizing. First and most obvious is the hostility to consent and the assumption that you can restrain someone “for their own good” as a random bystander. It also treats people having panic attacks as a problem with a single solution. Dude, if it was that easy, everybody with anxiety disorder or PTSD would pass this sheet out to everyone we know, and all our panic attacks would be instantly fixed. Humming or whispering might help some people in some situations, but I’d just find it irritating. And there are few things *less* helpful to say to me during panic or anxiety than “It’s going to be okay.” Especially since November, because it may very well not be.

I can picture a couple situations in which it would be reasonable to grab someone who’s having a panic attack. (This is as a friend, acquaintance, or other random bystander. If you’re an actual medical professional, I won’t presume to tell you how to do your job, but I certainly hope you have more training on the subject than a random Tumblr post.)

The first is if they’re in imminent physical danger that they seem to be ignoring or unaware of. If I’m too busy hyperventilating to leave a burning building, and don’t respond to “Hey, Kel, we need to get the hell out of here,” yes, please, drag me out physically.

The second is if they, specifically, have told you, specifically, that this is how they want you to help them handle their panic attacks. People vary wildly, so it’s entirely possible that this is helpful for some people, especially from someone they trust. I do find hugs helpful when Yippy is losing his shit, but offered, not forced, and from my husband, not anybody and everybody.

If you want to help a friend or loved one who has panic attacks, *ask them* what would be helpful. If you want to be a generally useful good Samaritan to anyone who might have a panic attack or other mental health problem in your general vicinity, mental health first aid classes are a thing.




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