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It can be difficult to know what to do and how to help someone with a panic 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
  • want to know how to help someone experiencing panic attacks
  • need to balance supporting your friend and looking after yourself.
Girl and boy sitting on couch speaking

How to help someone having a panic attack

Panic attacks can come on suddenly, without warning. Become familiar with the signs of panic attacks, so that you can recognise when it happens and have an idea of what you can do to support your friend.

Keep your cool

Speak to your friend calmly. Try to remain neutral, and don’t take anything they say or do personally. They’re going through a fight-or-flight stress response, so they might not act as they normally would.

Ask how you can help

Ask your friend if they’ve had a panic attack before, and if they have, how you can help. Most people who have panic attacks or other types of anxiety have preferred coping methods.

Be aware that, during a panic attack, your friend might find it hard to think or remember things, so you could also ask in advance how you could help if they experience an attack around you.

Focus on taking action

A soothing voice might help some people, but try to avoid saying things like ‘Don’t worry’ over and over. You might mean well, but your words may not help in the moment. Try these suggestions:

  • Remind your friend to take slow, deep breaths and breathe with them. This can often help as they 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 the symptoms continue, become worse, or they don’t improve after 20–30 minutes, call 000.

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. Avoid saying things like ‘Just calm down’ or ‘What’s wrong with you?’

Look after yourself

Helping someone with 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.

What can I do now?

  • Help your friend check out some professional help options.
  • Encourage your friend to try ReachOut NextStep, our anonymous online tool that offers personalised support options.
  • Ask your friend about what support they’d like from you and what expectations they might have.

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