How To Help Someone Having An Anxiety Or Panic Attack

December 4, 2023

Anxiety and panic attacks are physical manifestations of an anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder. An individual can experience anxiety or panic attacks in a variety of different situations. When individuals have a panic or anxiety disorder, they have a higher chance of experiencing unprompted panic attacks. Someone having an anxiety attack may have an elevated heartbeat, rapid breathing, and increased stress. Panic attacks tend to last for ten minutes at the most, though they typically have much sharper symptoms than anxiety attacks. An individual having a panic attack may experience pressure or squeezing on their chest, difficulty breathing, a rapid heartbeat, and intense fear.

Thankfully, patients have many anxiety and panic attacks treatment options. Many individuals try a medication for panic attacks to help calm their symptoms. There are also some other options, so some patients look into a homeopathic remedy for panic attacks. However, it may also be helpful for other individuals to know how to help someone having an anxiety or panic attack. In fact, knowing how to help can be the first step in finding the best treatment for panic attacks.

Ask Them If They Are Having One

The first thing most people can do to help someone having a panic or anxiety attack is quite simple: ask them if they are having one. This question lets you know if the individual has had a panic attack before. If they have, you can then ask them if they would like you to help or if there is anything that you can do for them. However, sometimes this may be the patient's first anxiety or panic attack. In this case, they may find it even more terrifying, since they may not immediately know what is happening. Asking them if they are having a panic attack can help get the thought into their mind. However, it is vital for you to remain calm and still ask if you can offer them help.

Stay Calm And Collected

Panic attacks can seem frightening to witness. You may not be sure what to do when your friend or family member appears unable to control their fear. However, panic attacks are much scarier for the individual experiencing them. The best thing you can do to support your loved one is to stay calm and collected. Remember, the situation is not about you. If you need to talk about it with them, you can do so later, once they have recovered from the episode. In the moment, your focus needs to be on helping them feel safe and giving them the time to calm down.

During a panic attack, an individual's body is being flooded by fear signals. They cannot control their responses to things. It is scary enough to feel out of control, and if those around them also seem panicked, it will just feed into the attack. The best way to convince them there is nothing to be afraid of is by acting as if this is the case. Keep your posture neutral, your voice calm, and your volume low and soothing.

Ask What They Need

Another one of the most important things you can do is to ask the person having the anxiety attack what they need. Whether it is a stranger or a close loved one, you must remember you are not inside their head. You also have to remember different individuals have different needs when it comes to recovering from panic. What works for one individual may cause increased fear in another. For this reason, even if you have seen others have panic attacks before, you should still ask the individual what they need. Doing this also lets them know you are listening, that you want to help, and that they have some measure of control over the situation.

Some individuals may want to be hugged during a panic attack, since the weight and pressure can be grounding. However, others are completely averse to being touched. You should never touch a person having a panic attack without getting permission first. If they are hyperventilating or too panicked to speak, assure them you are here for them and sit quietly with them until they can communicate their needs.

Encourage Them To Breathe

Another way you can help soothe the individual having a panic attack is by encouraging them to breathe. However, do not be forceful about it. If you demand they take deep breaths or act harshly, you are quite likely to make their anxiety worse. Being encouraged to breathe can sometimes be frustrating for those having panic attacks, since they do not always have control over it. If it seems like the encouragement is doing more harm than good, use other means of soothing them.

One way to help with breathing is by doing active breathing exercises with the individual rather than telling them to take a deep breath. Have them breathe in with you for a count of four, then exhale for a count of eight. If they cannot manage that, try breathing in for a count of two and then out for a count of four. The most important thing is for them to exhale longer than they inhale. This helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts in opposition to the adrenal system by giving the body signals that it is safe.

Offer Reassurance

You can help someone having a panic attack or anxiety attack by offering reassurance. Sometimes the attack will have been caused by something specific, and sometimes it will seem to come out of nowhere. If a specific circumstance caused it, do your best to remove the person from the setting, even if it is just temporarily. Keep others from staring or overwhelming them. If the attack was brought on by life circumstances or bad news, do not try to problem-solve. Problem-solving can wait for after the attack.

In the moment, you want to keep their brain from fixating on the issue instead of chewing on it. Sit with the individual and reassure them that you will stay with them until they are feeling better. Remind them they are safe as gently as possible. Let them know you will help them however they need, whether that is contacting someone to pick them up, helping work through an issue, or getting them to a quiet space to decompress.

Get Their Medication

Individuals who are having a panic or anxiety attack will often have anxiety medication. This is quite common, since these attacks are often part of anxiety and panic disorders that medication helps treat. Thus, it can help if you get their medication for them. Of course, it is vital to ask them if they have or need medication first, since it helps show that they are in control. If you do not already know where their medication is, this is also an essential question to ask. Ultimately, getting anxiety medication from a medicine cabinet or purse for patients who need it can really help them when they are in the midst of an anxiety or panic attack. Many anxiety medications can provide individuals with an immediate calming effect.

Always Be Predictable

Anxiety and panic attacks often happen suddenly. It is in their nature to be unpredictable for the individual going through them. In many instances, patients only have a few short moments before their anxiety or panic attack truly takes over. Unfortunately, panic and anxiety attacks can make it extremely difficult for individuals to concentrate on much of anything. Even small things can make the attack worse. Thus, it is often quite helpful for you to always be predictable when around someone having a panic attack. Explain what you are doing, what you are reaching for, and ultimately, avoid making any sudden movements. It can help if you stay in the individual's line of sight as well.

Speak In Simple Sentences

As discussed, individuals dealing with anxiety and panic attacks find it quite difficult to focus. Their stress levels are quite high at this time. They are likely also experiencing shortness of breath, a rapid heartbeat, and other symptoms of panic and anxiety. Some patients report having trouble following complicated instructions or understanding what others are trying to tell them during an anxiety or panic attack. Thus, it can help if you always speak in simple sentences to someone having an anxiety or panic attack. Break down things you want to tell the affected individual and make sure that they are as simple to understand as possible.

Get Them To Safety

As panic and anxiety attacks can happen quite suddenly and in any situation, it is possible for them to occur when affected individuals may not be safe. For example, panic attacks that happen at the top of stairs or at high heights can be an injury risk for the affected individual. Panic attacks in the middle of a crowd for someone whose trigger is the crowd, such as for social anxiety, are also unhelpful.

Thus, you can help an individual experiencing a panic attack by getting them to safety. At the top of some stairs, this can involve getting them away from the stairs so that they are not at risk of falling. If they are in a crowd, get them to safety by leading them to a quiet room or otherwise away from large groups of people. It is important, of course, to let the individual know what you are doing in a calm voice.

What Not To Say

Just as there are many things you can do and say to help someone calm down from a panic or anxiety attack, there are also things you should never say. One important thing to keep in mind is you should not say anything invalidating. The individual having the attack is already aware that they are not reacting rationally, and there is a good chance they are berating themselves for not having a rational response.

Telling them their fear is irrational will not help, because it does not stop the fear. You also should not tell them things are not that bad. They already know that, and being reminded can increase feelings of guilt and shame. Please do not be harsh or demanding, do not tell them to pull themselves together, and do not touch them without their consent. It would be best if you did not laugh at or belittle them either. Even if the panic attack seems incomprehensible to you, it feels very real to them, and you should be respectful of that.

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