Experiencing a panic attack disrupts one’s ability to think rationally. You can lend a hand. Here’s how to help someone with a panic attack.
In this article:
Tips on Helping People Having a Panic Attack
Recognizing Panic Attacks
Before anything else, you’ll have to recognize and confirm if what you are witnessing is really a panic attack. Many tend to mistake anxiety attacks for panic attacks or vice versa.
A panic attack is an abrupt occurrence of intense and overwhelming fear or discomfort that climaxes within minutes. It typically includes at least four of these panic attack symptoms:
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy or light-headed
- Chills or heat sensations
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Feeling numb or having tingling sensations (Paresthesia)
- Fear of dying
- Feelings of choking
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Feelings of unreality or derealization
- Self-detachment or depersonalization
- Fear of “going crazy”
Panic attacks are categorized as either unexpected or expected in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Unexpected panic attacks happen without apparent reasons; expected panic attacks are induced by external triggers like phobias.
It’s also possible to experience limited-symptom panic attacks. These are closely similar to full-blown episodes but with fewer than four indicators.
Like panic attacks, anxiety attacks are also commonly accompanied by physical symptoms like an elevated heart rate or stomach discomfort. The difference with the former is the duration and intensity of the symptoms.
Panic attacks commonly reach their peak intensity level in 10 minutes or less and then start to subside. People with panic disorder tend to visit emergency rooms convinced they have life-threatening issues because the intensity of the symptoms may mimic those of cardiovascular disease, breathing disorders, and thyroid problems.
How to Help Someone with a Panic Attack
If you suspect someone is having a panic attack, follow these steps:
Step 1: Stay Calm and Assess for Risk of Harm
Stay calm. Ask the sufferer if he’s had an episode before and if he thinks he may be having one at the moment.
If it’s something he is familiar with and he thinks it’s indeed a panic attack, ask him if he’d like help. If he does and you don’t know each other, introduce yourself.
Make sure that the perimeters are clear of any possible threat to the person’s physical safety.
Step 2: Listen with Good Judgement
Ask the sufferer what might help. Chances are he/she has a few tactics that can help him/her calm down.
Do not assume you know what is best. Also, know that there are things you should not say.
Here they are:
- “Just calm down.”
Telling a person in a panic to calm down may make him feel like you are suggesting he/she has control over the symptoms. Think about it, if he/she could, he/she would.
It may seem like you are helping, but in reality, this will only make him/her more aware and self-conscious of his/her symptoms.
- “There’s nothing to be nervous about.”
Chances are, the sufferer is well aware that there’s absolutely no reason to be afraid. When having a panic attack, the fight-or-flight response of the person is on, making him/her prepare for a perceived or actual threat.
Even when not in real danger, the sufferer may still not be able to stop the episode from running its course.
- “You are just overreacting.”
Now, this one’s just utterly mean. It’s one thing to undergo such a grueling experience but to have somebody who doesn’t know how a panic attack feels like dismiss the seriousness of what you’re going through is another.
Panic attacks are a serious set of challenging symptoms. They shouldn’t be confused with controllable emotional reactions.
Step 3: Stay with Them and Offer Reassurance
Most panic attacks can last between 20-30 minutes so do not leave the person after the second or third minute. These episodes are very stressful and scary for the person so be patient and stay throughout the attack.
Stay calm and reassure the person that while what they’re going through is frightening, the symptoms are going to pass. Talk to them using short sentences and speak firmly and clearly.
Step 4: Encourage Them to Breathe
During a panic attack, the sufferer may have difficulty breathing or forget how to breathe properly. Instruct the person to take a deep breath in for four seconds, let it out for four seconds, and repeat.
Deep breathing, when done properly, can help.
Step 5: Have an Engaging Conversation with the Person
Getting the sufferer talking will distract him/her from his/her thoughts and help regulate his/her breathing. Start by getting him/her to rationally talk about how he/she is feeling.
If such questions stress the person more, start talking about other things instead. If this person is a friend, chances are you know what his/her/her interests are.
Casually bring these topics up to get his mind off the distress. Do not, however, bombard the person with a lengthy talk since this may be overwhelming.
Step 6: Try Mindfulness Exercises
Panic attacks can detach people from reality and overtake their senses. Mindfulness techniques can help the sufferer re-ground himself/herself to reality and shift his/her focus away from what triggers the episode.
Here is a sample exercise you can make a person having a panic do:
- Look at five different things and think about each for some time.
- Listen to four distinct sounds and differentiate them from one another.
- Touch three different objects.
- Think of two different smells and associate them with memories.
- Taste something—a piece of candy or a fingertip.
Step 7: Instruct Them to Focus on One Object
Focusing on one nearby object can reduce other stimuli and may help a person having a panic attack. You can also instruct them to think about how heavy or light the object is or what’s its shape and texture are.
Doing this can redirect the person’s attention from the feeling of panic. Some people with panic disorder tend to always carry something with them for this purpose.
Whether you have a friend or a family member with this disorder or just a concerned mental health advocate, it pays to know a thing or two on how to help people having panic attacks.
Do you have any questions on how to stop a panic attack? Let us know in the comments section below!