It can be difficult to know what to do to help someone with a panic or anxiety disorder. While you can offer your support and encourage your friend to seek professional help, it’s also important that you look after yourself.
This can help if you:
- have a friend who experiences panic attacks or anxiety attacks
- want to know how to help someone who is experiencing panic attacks
- need to balance supporting your friend and looking after yourself.
What’s the difference between anxiety and a panic attack?
Anxiety is usually related to something that is perceived to be stressful or threatening. The symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe. Learn more about anxiety here.
A panic attack is a sudden, intense episode of fear or anxiety, accompanied by at least four of the following symptoms:
- racing heart or palpitations
- sweating shortness of breath or feelings of choking
- dizziness, trembling or shaking
- numbness or a tingling sensation
- hot and cold flashes
- fear of dying or of losing control
- queasy stomach or nausea
- feeling detached from oneself and one's surroundings.
Panic attacks can be triggered by an event or a stressor, or there may be no apparent cause at all. They have severe symptoms that disrupt what you’re doing at that moment. Get more info on panic attacks here.
Another term you might have heard is anxiety attack. There’s no one definition of anxiety attacks that everyone agrees on. Sometimes the term is used to describe panic attacks, and other times it’s used to describe a feeling of intense anxiety (which doesn’t meet the definition of a panic attack).
How to help someone who is having a panic attack
Panic attacks can come on suddenly, without warning. Become familiar with the signs of a panic attack, so that you can recognise when it happens and know how to support your friend.
Keep your cool
Your friend is going through a fight-or-flight stress response, so they might not act as they normally would. Speak to them calmly, and don’t take anything they say or do personally.
Ask how you can help
Ask your friend if they’ve had a panic attack before. If they have, ask how you can help them. Most people who have panic attacks or other types of anxiety have preferred coping methods.
During an attack, your friend might find it hard to think clearly or to remember things, so you could also ask in advance how you could help them if they experience an attack around you.
Focus on taking action
Try these suggestions:
- Remind your friend to take slow, deep breaths. Do this controlled breathing with them. This can often help, as they may start to mirror your actions.
- Ask them to count backwards slowly from 100.
- Help them to get comfortable. (Have them sit or lie down.)
- Ask them to name five things they can see, hear, smell or feel.
- Reassure them that they’re experiencing panic and that it will go away.
- If, after 20–30 minutes, the symptoms are continuing or have become worse, call 000.
Avoid saying things like ‘Don’t worry’ over and over. You might mean well, but your friend may not find your words helpful in the moment.
Validate their distress
People often have a hard time sharing their mental health experiences. They might feel judged or that they won’t be taken seriously.
Try to be empathetic, and understand that you might not always understand what they’re going through. During a panic attack, even if everything seems fine to you, the danger your friend feels is very real to them.
Avoid saying things like ‘Just calm down’ or ‘What’s wrong with you?’.
Look after yourself
Helping someone who experiences panic attacks can be difficult and exhausting. Make sure you care for yourself as well.
- Set clear boundaries about what you are and aren't willing to do to help them. For instance, you can tell them that you’re there for them if they need someone to talk to, but that you won’t be available when you’re in class or at work.
- Make sure you keep up with your social life and activities that you love, especially if supporting your friend is starting to get you down.
- If looking after your friend starts to take an emotional toll, talk to someone you trust about how you feel.
- Consider talking to a mental health professional or calling a hotline if you feel overwhelmed.
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