Witnessing a loved one or a friend experiencing a panic attack can be overwhelming and distressing. However, with the right knowledge and approach, you can provide valuable support in their time of need. Read on for practical steps on how to help when someone is having a panic attack.
Recognising the signs of a panic attack
One of the first and most important steps is recognising when someone is having a panic attack. A person experiencing a panic attack will likely have some of the following symptoms: rapid heart rate, shaking, shortness of breath, chest pain, chills, dizziness, tingling sensation, a fear of losing control, or a fear of dying.
Panic attacks can vary in intensity and duration, although most only last a few minutes. However, it can leave the person feeling exhausted for hours afterwards.
Note: If you are unsure whether the symptoms are a panic attack or a heart attack, seek medical help. For more on heart attacks, visit the Heart Foundation website.
Call 000 if it is an emergency.
Stepping in to help someone who is having a panic attack
Once you have established the person is having a panic attack, here are some practical ways you help them.
During a panic attack, the person may feel as if they are losing control or facing imminent danger. It is crucial to remain calm and composed, as your demeanour can have a soothing effect. Speak in a soft, gentle tone and assure them that they are safe and that they are having a panic attack. Remind them that the attack won’t last long.
You can remind the person that though they are feeling frightened and uncomfortable, the panic attack will pass. Encourage them to focus on their breathing. People who are having a panic attack often have shallow and rapid breathing. Ask the person to follow your lead as you take a full deep breath in and a full deep breath out. You can repeat this pattern until their breathing becomes steadier.
When someone is having a panic attack, the person may feel a need for a safe space. Help them find a quiet area, away from crowds or excessive noise. If possible, dim the lights or adjust the environment to make it more comfortable. You can also offer them a glass of water. Remind them that you are there to support them and that they are not alone in this experience.
Panic attacks can be distressing for the person experiencing them. Avoid making judgmental or dismissive comments. Refrain from urging them to “snap out of it” or minimising their feelings by saying, “There’s nothing to be afraid of”. Instead, provide empathetic and non-judgmental support. Simply listening and validating their experience can go a long way in helping them feel understood and accepted.
Knowing how to help when someone is having a panic attack can make a significant difference to the person’s wellbeing. Recognising the signs and using practical techniques can provide valuable assistance to the person. If the person is having regular panic attacks, encourage them to see their doctor.
Our CAREinMIND counsellors are available 24/7 on 1300 096 269 or click the floating chat button on the right. The service is free for people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.