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How to Help Someone Who is Having a Panic Attack

woman suffering from a panic attack
By LifeStance Health on July 20, 2020

If a friend or loved one is one of the millions of Americans who have panic attacks, it can be challenging to know how–or whether–you can help.

If your loved one is in the middle of a panic attack now, stay as calm as possible and take the following five steps:

  1. Ensure their physical safety
  2. Speak calmly and say reassuring things
  3. Ask if they have prescription medication for panic disorder
  4. Try clinically proven therapeutic techniques
  5. Avoid taking specific actions that can worsen the symptoms

Understanding how to carry out these steps can help you, and your loved one get through this tough time safely and prepare for any panic attacks in the future.

Ensure Physical Safety During a Panic Attack

People who are in the middle of a panic attack are in “fight or flight” mode despite the lack of real physical danger. This heightened response can cause physical symptoms and can make it difficult for a person to make rational decisions.

To ensure you loved one’s safety during a panic attack:

  • Ask them to pull over if they are driving
  • Gently bring their focus to their breath, helping them breathe slowly
  • Seek immediate care if the person is genuinely unable to breathe
  • Do not leave your loved one completely unattended until the panic attack has ended, usually five to 10 minutes from the beginning

If the person knows what panic attacks feel like and insist this is different, call 9-1-1. Panic attack symptoms can look very similar to heart attack symptoms. If someone is having a panic attack and they want to be alone, honor their wishes as much as possible. Offer to go to the next room or stay on the phone until you know they are safe.

What to Say to Someone Having a Panic Attack

Saying just the right things can make all the difference when someone is having a panic attack. Make sure that whatever you say is validating and reassuring.

You might say any of these things to someone having a panic attack:

  • “I’m here to keep you safe.”
  • “You can get through this.”
  • “Your feelings are understandable.”
  • “Let’s just focus on breathing right now.”
  • “You are loved, safe, and heard.”
  • “What can I do to help you through this?”

Whatever you say, stay calm. Speak slowly and in a soft tone. If the person having a panic attack asks you to stop talking, honor that. Simply sit with them.

Prescription Medications for Panic Attacks

If your loved one has had a panic attack in the past, they may have seen a mental health care provider about it. When appropriate, these providers may prescribe medications that patients take only when panic attacks begin. In the midst of a panic attack, your loved one could forget that they have the medication; asking them can help.

If they do have emergency panic medication, offer to get it for them with some water. You may need to reassure them that you are not passing judgment and there’s nothing wrong with taking medication that is prescribed for this exact purpose. If your loved one does not have medication, reassure them that you will get through it together without it. Don’t bring up the possibility of getting such a prescription until the panic attack has passed.

Calming Techniques to Help Someone Through a Panic Attack

Medication is not the only thing that can help someone who is having a panic attack. Calming and grounding techniques can help them regulate their emotions and physical responses. If your loved one sees a therapist, ask if they have a calming process they worked on in therapy. If not, that’s OK. You may:

  • Create a calming environment: If the environment itself is triggering the panic attack, go somewhere else. No matter where you are, try to limit loud or bright sensory stimuli. You may dim the lights, turn off loud sounds, or have your loved ones close their eyes.
  • Take focused breaths together: Model deep breathing and ask your loved one to breathe along with you. Try breathing in through your nose for four counts, then out through the mouth for four counts. By purposefully slowly the breath, your loved one can regulate their heart rate as well.
  • Try grounding techniques: Grounding techniques seek to focus the mind on what is truly happening around them, rather than what their body is responding to. There are many grounding techniques, including counting the number of sensory stimuli they can sense. Have your loved one name a few things they can hear, then what they can hear, and so forth.
  • Consider guided meditation or visualization: These techniques can have calming effects. Consider using an app, video, or other resources to access guided meditations.

What Not To Do When a Person is Having a Panic Attack

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to calming someone during a panic attack. However, there are a few things that you should avoid doing when your loved one is in the middle of a panic attack.

If someone is having a panic attack do not:

  • Tell them that they are overreacting
  • Make sudden movements or outbursts
  • Compare what they are worried about to anyone else’s situation
  • Shame them for their feelings
  • Minimize their feelings by saying something like, “It’s really not a big deal.”

As long as you approach the situation calmly and with empathy, you can both be OK.