It can be difficult to know what to do if your friend is experiencing a panic attack or has an 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
- you have a friend with an anxiety disorder
- you want to know how to help someone experiencing panic or anxiety
- you need to balance supporting your friend and looking after yourself.
How to help someone having a panic attack
Panic attacks can come on suddenly, without warning. Become familiar with the signs and symptoms, so that you can recognise when it happens and have an idea of what you can do to support your friend:
- Ask the person if they have had a panic attack before, and what they think might help them.
- Encourage them to breathe as slowly and deeply as possible.
- Ask them to count backwards slowly from 100.
- Help them to get comfortable (have them sit or lie down).
- Reassure them that they’re experiencing panic and that it will go away.
- Call 000 if the symptoms continue or become worse.
How to help someone with an anxiety disorder
A good place for you to start is to learn more about anxiety disorders, so that you have a better understanding of what your friend is going through. Check out these suggestions on the best way to help them:
- Be open and welcoming: tell them you are there to support them.
- Validate their experience: acknowledge that their anxiety must be difficult to handle; don’t tell them their anxiety is stupid or unfounded.
- Point them to professional help: encourage them to visit their GP to talk about options for support.
- Recommend ReachOut NextStep: this anonymous online tool recommends relevant support options based on what the person wants help with.
- Challenge their thoughts: ask them if there are other ways to view a situation. You can challenge their thinking while still validating their anxiety. For example, if they say ‘I’m definitely going to fail this exam’, you can acknowledge that worrying about an exam is normal, but you can also reassure them that they’ve studied hard and have done well on exams in the past.
- Encourage them to face their fears: they may avoid certain situations as a way of not feeling anxious about them. Tell them you believe they can overcome their fears by facing them head-on, and offer to support them while they do so.
- Celebrate their successes: when a friend takes a step towards confronting their fears, congratulate them and do something fun together. Help them feel proud of themselves for addressing the issue.
Look after yourself
Helping a friend who experiences severe anxiety 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, especially if supporting your friend is starting to get you down.
- If looking after your friend starts to weigh you down emotionally, speak to someone you trust about how you feel.
- Consider talking to a mental health professional if you feel overwhelmed.
What can I do now?
- Show your friend some of our fact sheets about anxiety disorders and how to get help for anxiety.
- 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.