Let’s start by stating something that is obvious to anyone who has ever suffered from a panic attack:
Panic attacks are difficult.
They are difficult to experience, but they are also difficult to witness.
Most people, understandably, and because of misconceptions about what a panic attack is, don’t know what to do when they are with someone who is experiencing one.
If you have never had a panic attack, you may be at a loss the first time you are around someone experiencing one.
Your instinct might be to tell the person to calm down.
That would seem to make the most sense, right?
Unfortunately, that’s not something that’s easy to do when you are in the throes of adrenaline coursing through your body.
That being said, there are some things that you can do to help someone who is having, or has just experienced a panic attack.
How to Help Someone Who is Having a Panic Attack
– Stay calm. This may seem obvious, and yet, it may also seem impossible. But it is imperative. Someone needs to be able to take the wheel, so we don’t both go over the cliff.
– Offer a glass of water and a cool wet rag (don’t ask if they want it, just provide it). This may just be me, but I get horribly thirsty when I have a panic attack, and water always helps soothe me. A cold glass with ice chips is especially nice. A cool rag on the back of my neck and on my forehead is also very soothing.
– Make eye contact and help them with their breathing. If you aren’t familiar with deep breathing techniques, try counting slowly to 10, while encouraging them to inhale for 4 counts and exhaling for 4 counts.
– Help them get fresh air and find a quiet place to go. It doesn’t have to be a place to sit – in fact, sitting is not usually preferred.
– Along with that, don’t try to restrain the person. (even a hug can feel constricting at that moment). Let them move freely; let them pace, sit, stand, do jumping jacks etc.
– Offer to stay close by, even if the person wants to be alone. You don’t have to be in the same room, but some people like to know someone is near, even if they don’t want you hovering over them.
– Speak in a calm voice. Seems obvious, but worth repeating. Yelling at the person is not helpful.
– Don’t say things like: “There’s nothing to be afraid of”, “You’re problems aren’t that bad”, “You’re overreacting”, “This is silly” etc. Instead, affirm that you are there for them. Say things like: “I’m here.” “What do you need?”
– Be reassuring. Remind the person that they are not alone and that you are there for them.
– Don’t ask a lot of questions. Again, this may just be me, but thinking clearly is difficult enough during levels of high anxiety, let alone during a panic attack. Calmly making suggestions or offering help and reminders is a better approach.
– Don’t take our reactions personally. While our minds are racing and our hearts are pounding wildly, answers and responses may seem short, snippy or even rude.
– Stay through the duration. Panic attacks are physically and emotionally exhausting and draining, so make sure that the person is ok and at a place where they can continue to recover safely.
–Be supportive, both during and after. Those who suffer from panic attacks might feel embarrassed afterwards. Reassure the person that you understand and that there is nothing to be ashamed of.
– A word about medical help: If this is the person’s first panic attack, they may feel as though/think that they are having a heart attack and want medical help. If so, help them get the help they need.
Being with someone when they have a panic attack can, admittedly, be a confusing and frightening experience. But know that it won’t last long and that your ability to stay calm and comforting can go a long way in helping the person recover.
This is the 16th post in a 31 Day Series: 31 Days to Peace: Finding inner peace for anxiety and panic attacks. Start from the beginning here.