How to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack

Knowing the right things to do and say while a friend or loved one experiences a panic attack can truly make a lot of difference to the situation. Panic attacks are very overwhelming and can be traumatic experiences. Anyone can find themselves on the receiving end and they are exceptionally common under high stress situations. Experiencing a panic attack for the first time can be very terrifying and distressing so having someone around who understands what is happening can help to bring them to a level of calm. For those who regularly experience panic attacks, it can be a huge comfort to them to know that you can help them when their anxiety flares up and they need a reassuring presence.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is when someone responds to a situation as if they are in real danger. It triggers physical symptoms that come about very suddenly, all caused by a sudden rush of adrenaline that is meant to prepare for a dangerous situation. However, during a panic attack, when there is no apparent danger or cause, the feelings of fear and panic are out of proportion and can start to escalate if the person can’t calm down or rationalise their thoughts with the situation. What makes panic attacks so overwhelming is when the symptoms start to fuel the episode as they can be very scary. Some people compare having a panic attack to having a heart attack because of how powerful the physical symptoms can be – and how frightening.

What are the signs of a panic attack?

Learning to recognise the signs of a panic attack will put you in a better position to help. If you can spot the early signs that a panic attack is building up, you can help de-escalate the situation before the more physical and frightening symptoms start to manifest. If you’re able to calm the person down and encourage them to focus on their breathing, the panic attack will be over much more quickly.

Someone having a panic attack may experience one or more of the following:

  • A racing heartbeat
  • Tightness in the chest and shortening of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Heat flashes or feeling very cold
  • Nausea
  • Numbness in the hands and sometimes face
  • Pain in the chest
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shaking and trembling

Many people experience different symptoms – some can be more severe than others. If you have experienced a panic attack yourself, your physical symptoms can be different to someone else’s.

What to do if someone is having a panic attack

The first thing you should do is make sure that you are both in a safe environment. Make sure that people aren’t crowding around and overwhelming the person experiencing the panic attack.

Stay calm

Your own behaviour will set the situation. Keep calm and controlled. It can help them to see you breathing deeply and they can mirror your breathing to help bring their own under control. Assure them that everything is okay.

Be present

Stay with them the entire time. If they do need space at any point, keep your distance but don’t leave. Make sure they know that you are there if they need you.

Show understanding and empathy

Validate their feelings and listen to them. If you show understanding and relate to their reaction, it’ll help them to rationalise their feelings and bring them under control.

Ask what they need

If they experience panic attacks often, they are more likely to know what will help them to ride it out. Ask how you can best help them. Do they need water? Do they need to go outside and get some fresh air? Keep talking to them and prompt actions rather than just give them assurances. If you can change the situation, it makes things more positive and realistic that they can get through the panic attack.

Encourage coping techniques

Talking them through breathing techniques will help bring the situation under control. Help them to breathe slowly and count for them if they are struggling to manage their breathing on their own. Sometimes, panic attacks can become very overwhelming and it’s hard to think straight. Helping them with counting their breaths gives them something to focus on and is the essential tool for managing anxiety and panic disorders. To start with, have them breathe out slowly for five seconds, then in again for five. Keep up the regulated breathing for at least five minutes.

What to avoid if someone is having a panic attack?

Sometimes while we have the best intentions, we can make things worse if we say the wrong things. It’s important that you understand what to avoid when someone is having a panic attack. While you may think that you’re helping, it could have the opposite effect.

Don’t tell them to ‘calm down’

Telling someone to ‘calm down’ when they become stressed is often the worst thing you can say because if only it was that simple. Avoid telling them to ‘stay calm’ or ‘don’t worry about it’. It is better to focus on how you can help them to calm themselves down.

Don’t try to solve the issue

Whatever the cause of the panic is, that’s not the pressing problem. Helping them through the panic attack is the priority then you can help them address what caused things to escalate in the first place. Reminding them of the trigger is only going to make them more stressed and more panicked.

Don’t make judgements or assumptions

If you don’t know what set off the panic attack, don’t make assumptions about the trigger. Judging their feelings and reactions will only make them feel much worse. You could end up making them feel less secure while they are vulnerable with you. Be matter-of-fact and compassionate.

Don’t overwhelm and ask questions that don’t help

When we have a panic attack, it’s almost like a mental bombardment. Don’t add to the stresses that are causing the panic attack to arise. Try to help them slow down the situation. Any questions you ask need to be for their benefit, not yours.

When to get help and who to contact
Panic attacks usually last around 15 – 20 minutes at their worst. If they aren’t calming down or you are worried about their heart rate, don’t hesitate to call out for help. Panic attacks have symptoms that are alarmingly similar to a heart attack. Call 111 for advice from the NHS if you need assistance.

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