How to Help Someone Who’s Having a Panic Attack
If you've ever been around a person who is experiencing a panic attack, you probably know how awful it can feel to see someone in pain and not know how to respond.
In an effort to help out, people may try to jump in and kindly comfort the person in distress. However, even though they're trying to help, they can say or suggest the wrong things. That's why it's important to know effective ways to calm the person down and alleviate their symptoms.
Indicators of a Panic Attack
A panic attack usually lasts between 5-20 minutes and may vary in intensity and duration.
Those who experience a panic attack are faced with an intense and sudden feeling of fear, terror, or discomfort accompanied by mental and physical symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, chest pain, sweating, trembling or shaking, chills, sense of impending danger, feeling of detachment, nausea, and feeling lightheaded or unsteady.
Even though a lot of what they’re experiencing may be internal and invisible to an observer, there are some physical signs that you can look out for.
They've suddenly become distant and quiet: It may be hard for them to communicate with others because they’re too focused on the sensations they’re experiencing.
They seem hot and flustered: Panic attacks may cause a person to begin to sweat or feel uncomfortably hot. You may notice that their face is flushed or that they look nauseous.
Their breathing has changed: Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, or chest pain are all possible symptoms. As they attempt to regain their breath, they may get dizzy, lightheaded, and, in some cases, they may even faint.
They are shaking: Some people may feel cold rather than hot, and this can cause them to get chills and begin to shiver.
What to Do
It can be really difficult when someone you care about is experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, but, fortunately, there are some things you can do to help. You can:
Remain calm: This one’s important because if they see that you're also panicking, it could potentially make things worse.
Guide their breathing: Have them inhale slowly, completely filling their lungs, then exhale slowly, completely emptying their lungs. You can even do this breathing exercise with them to help them feel supported and less alone.
Remind them it'll be over soon: This will help them direct their focus to the fact that their panic attack is temporary and that they will be okay.
Use grounding techniques: Give them a lemon or sour candy and have them focus on the taste. You can also hand them something cold, like ice cubes, or have them run cold water over their wrists.
Ask them what you can do to help them: If they can't answer you in that moment, that’s okay. You can try to have a conversation with them once the panic attack has passed to see what would be helpful so that you're prepared should this happen again.
What to Say
Talking to a person experiencing a panic attack may help distract them from their thoughts and help them regulate their breathing.
Try saying something like this:
"You can get through this."
"I'm here to keep you safe."
"You’re going to be okay. Remember that this is temporary and it will be over soon."
"You are loved, safe, and capable."
"What do you need me to do so I can help you?"
"What you are feeling is scary, but it will be okay. You are safe."
It's important to speak in a soft tone and to remain calm. If the person experiencing the panic attack asks you to stop talking, honor that. Simply sit with them until the panic subsides.
What Not to Do
If someone is having a panic attack, do not:
Tell them they have no reason to be nervous: Even if they are not in any real danger, they still may not be able to stop the attack from running its course. Reinforcing that the person's fear is unfounded can increase one's sense of anxiety.
Tell them to calm down: If told to calm down, they may feel as though you are suggesting that they have complete control over their symptoms. If a person could simply calm down and stop having a panic attack, they would.
Tell them they are overreacting: It’s hard enough to have to deal with uncomfortable symptoms and it makes the whole ordeal even more challenging when others are minimizing their experience.
Shame them for their feelings: Many people already feel embarrassed about having to manage a panic attack in public, so there is no need to bring this to the person's awareness. Instead of saying or doing something to cause them to feel like you’re shaming them, try affirming their strength.
Get them to breathe into a paper bag: You might have seen on TV that people having panic attacks should breathe into a paper bag. This is no longer considered the best practice because they end up breathing in carbon dioxide, which could cause them to pass out.
After the Panic Attack
Check in with them later that day and the day following their panic attack to make sure they are doing okay. Telling them that they can reach out to you if things get overwhelming and they need someone to talk to or sit with.
Finally, if you feel both you and they are comfortable with it, you can suggest that they reach out to their GP about their panic attack/s. You can also encourage them to do things that help with overall well-being such as regular exercise, meditation, or relaxation techniques that are easy to do daily and can help with increasing anxiety. You could even partake in these activities with them!
Panic attacks can be scary for everyone involved, especially if one doesn’t know what to do. However, by following these simple guidelines, you can help reduce the amount of stress in a very stressful situation, potentially prevent the symptoms from getting worse, and help provide clarity in a confusing scenario. Just by reading this article, you’re already one step closer to being able to help someone in their time of need.
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