4 Steps to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack
Dr. Satyen Sharma
Sr. Consultant Psychiatrist | Mental Health & Substance Use Disorder
When someone you love is having a panic attack, it can be tricky to know how to help. By responding with understanding and empathy, you can make a true difference.
Whether it’s your friend, relative, or partner, chances are you know someone who has had, or will have, a panic attack. If you happen to be nearby when it happens, it’s only natural to want to do everything in your power to understand and support them.
Research shows that at least 13%Trusted Source of people will experience a panic attack in their lifetime.
Almost 1 in 3 people will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Statistics show that women are twice as likely as men to have a panic disorder.
If your loved one is having a panic attack, there are several ways you can help. With a few research-backed techniques, you’ll be better equipped to provide support.
Gently name it, and tell your loved one that you believe they are having a panic attack. This can provide some context for what’s happening and relieve the fear of the unknown.
You can let them know that it will pass. Panic attacks can last anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes, though the worst symptoms usually subside within 10 minutes, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of American (ADAA).
If this is the first time your loved one has had a panic attack, it might be advisable to seek medical attention to rule out other causes of their symptoms.
The symptoms of a panic attack can include:
rush of intense fear
feeling of impending doom
sudden fear of death
feeling of losing control
Everyone experiences anxiety differently. It’s important to keep in mind that what works for one person may not work for someone else. Don’t be afraid to try different strategies.
One of the best ways to help someone is to remain calm yourself, even if you’re feeling a little uneasy about what’s happening.
Keep yourself calm by taking deep breaths and reminding yourself that this is temporary. If the situation becomes overwhelming for you, reach out to someone else for help.
Give them space
Your loved one may need some space during a panic attack. The hyperarousal state of panic — when your brain’s limbic system is on “high alert” — can mean that usual elements in the environment feel overstimulating, like touch, music, bright lights, or other sounds.
After reminding them that they can handle their symptoms, you can give your loved one space until their panic attack passes. They might ask you to stick around. If they do, reinforce their ability to independently experience their symptoms by uttering the coping statement once or twice and letting them ride out their symptoms until they pass.
If the two of you had plans, it can help to suggest going through with them once the panic attack has ended to help your friend see that they can get through the day even if they’ve had a panic attack.
Offer a coping statement
While someone is having a panic attack, we do want to be empathic, but we don’t want to reinforce the idea that panic is dangerous, harmful, or needing to be reduced, minimized, or escaped.
So, rather than giving your loved one lots of reassurance and fussing over them, it can help to remind them that they can cope with what’s happening on their own. This gives them back their power to deal with the situation.
You can do this by offering supportive statements like:
“You can handle these symptoms.”
“This will pass.”
“The feelings aren’t comfortable, but you can accept them.”
“This will roll over you, like a wave.”
Remind them that, although panic attacks can feel never-ending, they typically peak in about 10 minutes. It’s not possible for the body to stay ramped up for much longer than that.
How to help via text message
If you’re out and about when you get a text from someone that says, “I think I’m having a panic attack,” what do you do?
One of the best things you can do is offer supportive phrases that reinforce their ability to cope. Try a few of these supportive phrases:
“This is time-limited. It will pass.”
“You’re doing a great job.”
“I’m confident that you can handle this.”
“You’re going to get through this!”
Whether in person or over text, try to avoid making a big deal of their symptoms. Your role can be to help them extinguish the idea that a panic attack is dangerous or intolerable, and remind them that they can handle this experience. You can then offer to help reconnect if they need more support later on.
Understanding panic disorder
While panic attacks might make us feel like something is very wrong, they’re just false alarms — a misfiring of the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response. The sympathetic nervous system is responding to a perceived threat by driving physical processes like your heart and breathing rate. Panic attacks are simply an example of the flight-or-fight response out of context.
If your loved one lives with panic disorder — where they experience unexpected, recurring panic attacks and avoid behaviors or situations that might cause them — the most loving thing you can do is not reinforce the panic cycle by making a big deal out of panic attacks.
It’s also helpful to avoid reinforcing their escape behaviors, which could happen by staying near them or providing excessive reassurance. If you do this, it might unintentionally reinforce the feeling that something must be wrong after all.
A great way to help a friend with panic disorder is to support them once they get connected to a therapist who is doing exposure therapy with them. You can cheer them on as they gradually expose themselves — with the guidance of a trained therapist — to increasingly challenging situations that might provoke panic. In this controlled environment, they will practice resisting escape or safety behaviors.
What not to do when someone is having a panic attack
While it’s tempting to help your loved one avoid the feelings of panic by distracting them from their bodily sensations or taking them away from the situation, these are considered “safety behaviors.” While safety behaviors might help to ease anxiety in the moment, they could actually reinforce a cycle of panic that exists in panic disorder.
Safety behaviors and distractions can prevent people from learning that panic attacks, while uncomfortable, are not actually harmful or dangerous.
Your loved one can handle panic without actually doing anything, and it’s important for them to know that anxiety about panic goes away on its own without causing them harm.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — a major method for treating panic disorder — teaches you strategies to reduce your anxiety and avoidance around panic attacks. The idea isn’t to prevent them but to sit with them until they inevitably pass. And often, you experience fewer panic attacks over time as you grow to fear them less.
The most effective way to react to a panic attack is just to ride it out instead of resisting or escaping it. While escaping a panic attack in the short term reduces anxiety, it just drives the panic cycle in the long term because you reinforce beliefs that panic is dangerous, harmful, or something that must be avoided at all costs.
The idea is to allow the symptoms to just be, which helps you to view panic attacks as a manageable experience, not one that needs to be escaped.
Try not to ask someone over and over if they are alright, as this can reinforce the idea that panic is dangerous or harmful. Also, avoid saying phrases that might invalidate their experience, like:
“It’s all in your head.”
“Snap out of it.”
“I know exactly how you feel.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Why are you so upset over that?”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Do not offer substances!
It may be tempting to give your loved one something to take the edge off, but this could make a panic attack worse. Certain strains of cannabis, like sativa, can increase anxiety and lead to paranoia. Alcohol changes levels of serotonin in the brain, which can make anxiety feel more intense.
If your loved one wants medication to help with future panic attacks or an anxiety disorder, suggest a visit to a primary care physician or a psychiatrist.
A panic attack usually goes away in just a few minutes. If it doesn’t, it could mean a more serious medical event is happening, like a heart attack. Remember to stay calm as you assess the situation.
Look for these warning signs:
squeezing chest pain that moves to arms or shoulders (rather than stabbing)
shortness of breath does not improve
symptoms that carry on for 20 minutes
chest pressure lasts longer than 1 to 2 minutes
If you see any of those warning signs, contact a Doctor immediately.
Some symptoms of a panic attack are similar to those of a heart attack. You can read about how to tell the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack here.
Looking after yourself
Supporting someone during a panic attack can be stressful — not just for them, but for you too. After the panic attack subsides and your friend is in a more relaxed headspace, it’s important to take some time for your own self-care.
Go easy on yourself for a few hours or the rest of the day. Take some time to recharge by practicing yoga, taking a warm bath, journaling, or doing anything else that relaxes you.
If taking care of someone is interfering with your own quality of life, consider reaching out to a therapist to talk about what you’re going through.
Remember, we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. You also can’t give from an empty cup. Take care of your energy first, then whatever’s left can flow toward those that you love.
CC: Psych Central