How to help someone who is having a panic attack

Girl who can't breathe with plastic over her face

In the previous article we talked about understanding anxiety and panic attacks. Although you might never have or never will experience a panic attack or anxiety yourself it might happen to someone close to you.

While having a panic attack a person can have difficulty breathing, they can start to hyperventilate and feel dizzy, they might be trembling, sweating and even feel nauseous. They might even think they are having a heart attack. This can be a very stressful situation and can be very frightening, not only to the person having the attack but also to their loved ones or the person witnessing the attack.

The most important thing to remember is that no matter how irrational their panicked response to the situation may seem to you, the danger and fear is very real to the person having the panic attack. Telling to calm down or trying to minimize their fear will not help at all, on the contrary it might make things worse. It is important to acknowledge that what they are feeling is real and to be there for them.

So what do you do?

1You be the calm one.

Being calm, understanding, and non-judgemental will help the person suffering from a panic attack to get through it. The symptoms will subside quicker and the person will be able to get through the attack much easier.

2. Get the person to focus on their breathing.

Find a quiet place and guide the person to take slow, deep breaths. Doing this for a few minutes will help them get their breathing under control and focus their mind on the specific task at hand.

3. Help the person to get out of their own head.

What you want to do here is to disrupt destructive thought patterns and shift their focus so that the panic can subside and calm can return. You can do this by asking them to name five things around them that they can see, or even to repeat random numbers after you. Anything really that can take their mind off what is happening and that requires them to focus on something else.

When the panic attack starts to subsided it would be a good idea to just talk about something else entirely. Something like a shared interest or even a show you watched on TV.

4. Reassure and encourage them.

After the panic attack the person might be embarrassed about what happened and that you were there to witness it. At this stage it is important that you need to reassure them that they have nothing to be embarrassed about – it can happen to anyone. This will also open the door for you to discuss what just happened. It might be that the person is already under someone’s care and is receiving counselling, or it might be that it is their first time experiencing a panic attack. If it is their first experience they will be very scared and confused, and you should talk about the possibility of getting some professional help. There are a lot of treatment options available to people struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, whether that be counselling or even medication.

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