Whether it’s a friend or a family member, panic attacks are scary to witness. Calvin Holbrook explains how you can support someone who is having a panic attack while also keeping yourself calm, too.

 

As someone that lives with anxiety and has had many panic attacks in the past, believe me when I say they can be truly terrifying events for the person experiencing them. But they can also be super scary for the person witnessing someone having an attack, especially if it’s bad one. 


Furthermore, the feeling of fear for those watching someone having a panic attack can be heightened if they’ve never witnessed one before. During a panic attack, the physical symptoms may be so intense that the person suffering it feels like they're having a heart attack or are about to die. For the friend or family member observing what seems like an emergency moment, this can cause great alarm and upset. 


Indeed, during some of my worst panic attacks I’ve asked family members or friends to call for an ambulance as I think that I’m having a heart attack and about to pop my clogs.

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Help a friend having a panic attack 


So, while it can clearly be difficult when someone you care about is going through a panic attack or other anxiety issues, there are things you can do to help them.

 

How to help someone having a panic attack

If you know your friend lives with anxiety and regularly suffers attacks, the situation may be easier to handle. However, if you’re witnessing someone have their first panic attack, the sufferer is likely to be just as alarmed as you are. Here are my top suggestions for assisting someone who is going through a panic attack. 

 

1. Stay calm yourself

Watching someone going through a panic attack can be frightening, but it won’t help if you start to panic, too. Be assured that if it’s definitely a panic attack, then your friend is at no physical risk. Panic attacks normally don’t last too long – with the most intense feelings lasting around 10-15 minutes – so be assured this uncomfortable situation will come to an end sooner or later.

 

2. Use a calm voice to reassure them 

If speaking with them seems to help, try telling your friend these things in a calm voice:

  • that they’re safe 
  • reassuring them that you won’t leave
  • reminding them the panic attack will pass

 

3. Ask how you can help

Many people who regularly experience panic attacks have developed their own go-to coping methods. I, for example, prefer to be left alone to do some deep breathing and listen to calming music. When offering support, bear in mind that if they are used to having attacks, your loved one will know best when it comes to receiving any help or not. 

 

“When someone you care about is going through a panic attack or other anxiety issues, there are things you can do to help them.”


Indeed, don’t be offended if your friend asks you to be quiet or leave them in peace: sometimes those experiencing an anxiety attack just want to be left alone. Moreover, the fight-or-flight stress response affects a person’s ability to think and behave logically, so you may receive a curt response! Please, do not take it personally.


If they do want you to leave, take a few steps away and give them some space. Try to stay nearby to keep an eye on them and let your friend of family member know that if they do change their mind, you can come right back to them. 

 

4. Encourage them to breathe deeply

If your friend is receptive to help, encouraging them to take deep breaths is one of the most useful things you can deal to assist them in dealing with their panic attack (and it may just calm you down too if you do it together!). 


Slow, controlled breathing helps to bring the body back to its regular state. During a panic attack, breathing becomes shallow which results in a person not getting enough oxygen into their blood. In turn, this increases the anxiety. Deep breathing brings oxygen levels back to normal and reduces the anxiety.


RELATED: Panic attacks – 12 tips on what to do when anxiety hits hard


Encourage your friend to breathe through their nose deep into their abdomen for four seconds, hold for a second, then breath out through the nose for four seconds, before repeating. They should keep doing this until they start to feel calmer.

 

5. Encourage them to sit somewhere quietly 

This tip may be difficult to follow, depending on where you are when someone is having their panic attack. If you’re together outside in a busy area, try to find a quiet, less busy, place to sit together – some steps or a green area – while you work through the breathing exercises.


If you're close to home or already inside, guide your friend to a quiet, dimly lit room and sit them on a bed or sofa. Playing some calming music (Moby’s Ambient Tales is a good one) can help reduce panic attack symptoms.

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Sit in a quiet place while having a panic attack shutterstock/Waraporn Wattanakul


However, in either situation, don’t be surprised (or alarmed) if your friend suddenly dashes off and needs to be by themselves. One of the main symptoms of panic attacks is also the desire to run away, so they might want to be alone while they deal with their heightened anxiety. Also, sometimes just walking or moving might help someone to feel like they're coping with the attack. 

 

6. Help them stay grounded

Using grounding techniques can help contain panic attacks after they begin. These techniques take a person out of their head and push them to focus on what’s really happening, instead of the danger their brain perceives. If the person is responsive to help, try:

  • holding their hand
  • encouraging them to stretch or move body parts 
  • passing them a textured object to play with
  • suggesting they repeat a helpful phrase, such as “this is just a panic attack. It will pass. It cannot hurt me.”

 

7. After the attack: respecting their needs

Trust me; it’s common to feel completely wiped out after a panic attack. If I’ve had a particularly powerful one, I need to rest for hours afterwards before I start to feel better. Indeed, after an extreme fear response, your body has to slowly return to normal. This may mean your friend just wants to get home alone and rest. 

 

“Don't be offended if your friends asks you to be quiet or leave them in peace: sometimes those experiencing an anxiety attack just want to be left alone.”

 

On a few occasions I've been out with friends and after experiencing a panic attack simply had to go straight home to bed. This can be upsetting for the friend but it also often upsetting – not to mention embarrassing – for the person who has had the attack. They may also feel bad about ruining any plans you had together.

 

What not to do when someone is having a panic attack

Do not tell them to just relax or to calm down: the person suffering the panic attack has little control over their symptoms. If they could calm down, they certainly would! Also, do not encourage them to breathe into a paper bag: this might not be safe.

 

How else can you help? 

It can be useful to learn anxiety attack warning signs if you're unfamiliar with them. That way you can be prepared when someone develops an episode. Panic attacks commonly begin with:

  • hyperventilation and/or shortness of breath
  • tingling in hands or feet
  • a feeling of terror or dread
  • a pounding heart
  • dizziness and/or shaking
  • dry mouth
     

 

When to seek medical help

If you’re not used to it, it can be frightening to witness someone having a panic attack. But when should you call for additional help? It’s a tough one. I myself have ended up in ER rooms and called out the ambulance service as I thought I was having a heart attack, when, in fact, it was just my anxiety causing similar symptoms.
 

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In the midst of an attack, telephoning the local emergency number may seem like the safest move to you, but this can often exasperate an already stressful situation. Indeed, simply sticking around with your friend until they feel better might be all you need to do.


However, do call for medical assistance if:

  • symptoms deteriorate and persist for longer than 20-30 minutes
  • shortness of breath doesn’t improve
  • chest pain feels like squeezing and moves to arms/shoulders


Panic attacks can be terrifying to witness, but with time you can learn how to identify when someone is having one and offer assistance. 

Discuss with other member of the community about how to help someone with anxiety in our forum

Main image: shutterstock/Antonio Guillem

 

Written by Calvin Holbrook

calvin.holbrook.jpegCalvin edits our magazine and is a lover of swimming, yoga, dancing to house/techno, and all things vintage. Find out more.


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