How to help someone having a panic attack
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 or loved one who experiences panic attacks
want to know what to do when someone is having a panic attack
want to know how to support someone with anxiety who is at risk of panicking
need tips on how to look after yourself while supporting a friend who has panic attacks.
What does a panic attack look like?
A panic attack is a sudden, intense episode of fear or anxiety, with severe symptoms that disrupt and obstruct whatever the person was doing at that moment.
Symptoms of a panic attack
In addition to a sudden rush of anxiety or fear, panic attacks have four or more of the following symptoms:
shortness of breath or difficulty breathing normally
heart palpitations or rapid heart rate
a pounding or tight feeling in the chest
trembling and shaking
nausea or stomach symptoms
numbness or tingling
feeling very hot or cold
weakness or disorientation
difficulty swallowing or a tight feeling in the throat
belief or fear that they are dying, or are having a medical emergency such as a heart attack
fear of not being able to calm down or of losing control.
Panic attacks can be triggered by an event or a stressor, or there may be no apparent cause at all. Get more info on panic attacks and panicking here.
What’s the difference between anxiety and panic attacks?
You might have heard the term ‘anxiety attack’. This isn’t a recognised medical term, and it can mean different things to different people. Some people use the terms ‘panic attack’ and ‘anxiety attack’ interchangeably, which can be confusing. An anxiety attack is most commonly defined as a period of increased anxiety that doesn’t have four or more of the symptoms of a panic attack.
How to help someone having a panic attack
Panic attacks can come on suddenly, without warning. If you know someone who experiences panic attacks, it can be a good idea to familiarise yourself with the signs so that you can support your friend if they have an attack.
Steps to calm a panic attack
Keep your cool
Your friend is going through a fight-or-flight stress response, so they might not act as they normally would. It’s important to make sure they can see you and that the environment around them is safe and calm, as this can help to alleviate their symptoms and soothe them.
Do your best to keep your cool: speak to them calmly and empathetically, and avoid making sudden movements or loud noises.
Ask them how you can help
Most people who have panic attacks or other types of anxiety have preferred coping methods, so ask the person if they have any, or what you can do in that moment to help comfort them.
However, people often struggle to think clearly or to remember things while experiencing a panic attack. So if you have a friend who is prone to having panic attacks, it can be a good idea to talk to them in advance about what you should do to help them if they experience an attack.
Get them comfortable
Ask the person what would make them comfortable, and help them sit up or lie down as needed.
It’s a good idea to avoid touching them without asking first, as some people find it distressing to be touched while experiencing a panic attack. If they confirm it’s okay, you can comfort them physically.
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 be aware that you might not always understand what they’re going through. During a panic attack, even if everything seems fine to you, the danger or threat the person feels is very real to them.
Get further help if needed
Comforting and supporting someone during a panic attack will usually help their symptoms subside, but if after 20–30 minutes the symptoms are continuing or have become worse, you should call 000.
What to do to help someone someone showing the symptoms of a panic attack
Here are some common ways to help someone who is having a panic attack:
Empathise with how they are feeling.
Remind them to take slow, deep breaths, or talk them through controlled breathing exercises.
Ask them to count backwards slowly from 100.
Ask them, ‘What would make you feel more comfortable right now, sitting up or lying down?’
Ask them to name five things they can see, hear, smell or feel.
Reassure them that they’re experiencing panic, not a medical emergency, and that it will go away.
Remember: there’s no specific script that will help every single person who is having a panic attack – everyone is different and will respond to different things.
If you say something and the person doesn’t answer or if they respond negatively, don’t let it faze you – just calmly reassure them that that’s okay, and try something else.
What not to do when someone is having a panic attack
Avoid making any judgemental statements, or saying anything that puts blame on the person or makes them feel like they are at fault.
Avoid saying things like ‘Just calm down’ or ‘What’s wrong with you?’.
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.
Try not to take anything they say or do personally. Someone who is experiencing a panic attack is severely distressed, which can cause them to lash out, or to say or do things they don’t mean or usually wouldn’t say or do.
Don’t forget to look after yourself, too
Knowing how to help someone having a panic attack is important, but it can be difficult and exhausting for you too. 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.
What can I do now?
Do some research and read up on what panic attacks are and what causes a panic attack so you can recognise the signs in future..
Make an appointment with ReachOut PeerChat, so you can have a one-on-one chat with a peer worker who understands anxiety and panic attacks.
If you’re wondering ‘what does a panic attack feel like?’ so that you can better empathise with your friend or loved one, check out Calypso’s story about her experiences with panic attacks.