How to help someone who has panic attacks?

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By Callum Woodward

Panic attacks manifest themselves in different ways and it is useful to know how to recognise them in order to be better equipped to help someone who is going through one. Panic attacks can cause the affected person to have intense anxiety alongside physical symptoms such as racing heart, sweating, feeling dizzy and/or sick, and breathlessness. I myself get the shakes and zone out during panic attacks.

More people suffer from panic attacks than you would think, and the solution is never as obvious as getting them to breathe into a brown paper bag whilst in the foetal position.

How to help someone suffering from panic attacks?

Despite people’s best intentions, certain well intended ‘helpful’ words are not always helpful. Here are some examples of ‘do’s and don’ts’ for someone who may be suffering from a panic attack:

Panic attacks: Do’s and Don’ts

Do: Stay with the person and keep yourself calm

If I wandered off or started panicking myself, it would only serve to make the affected person more anxious. By having someone with them, who is a source of assurance and aid, they will begin to feel safer.

People just need assurances that you are there for them. I know that I benefitted from the knowledge that someone was there beside me. It kept me grounded through an attack.

Do: Help slow the person’s breathing down by breathing with them or slowly counting from 1 to 10

Breathing exercises go a long way to keep someone grounded in the moment, preventing them from spiralling further. A great breathing exercise that I find useful is to breathe in for four seconds, hold for two seconds, breathe out for four seconds, repeating as needed.

Simple as. Doing this will slow the breathing down as well as the heart rate.

Do: Speak in short, simple sentences

Try not to over-complicate things. Do not throw a load of information or instructions at them while they are feeling like this. Just keep them focused on their breathing.

I have made a great effort to take the time to find the right words for someone when they are having an attack as speaking like an auctioneer will help no one.

Don’t: Tell them to ‘calm down’

I cannot state this enough: NO. If it were as simple as saying this, then we would have no need for medication, counselling, or blogs like this. Such phrases are incredibly counter-productive. If I were to tell someone to just ‘calm down’, it would be incredibly disrespectful to the person’s feelings and somewhat patronising.

Don’t: Make someone feel guilty about feeling like this

Undoubtedly, the affected person is already embarrassed about having a panic attack. I always was. All they need to know from you is that you are there for them in this moment.

I always make sure to tell the person that their feelings are valid. We are all human, and we are allowed to stumble sometimes. I challenge you to find someone who has never had to deal with their mental health. Everything that you feel is valid and sometimes you just need someone to be there, hold your hand, and tell you that things will be okay.

Don’t: Get more people to come and gather

This follows on from the previous point about the affected person feeling embarrassed. Having more people there to gawk at them will only serve to make them feel more anxious. Consider it a 1-2-1. You are there to keep them calm on your own.

I know I have heard the line “give them some air” in films and television. But it absolutely makes sense to do this. Crowding around someone when they are feeling anxious and vulnerable will do the complete opposite of what you are trying to achieve.

Finally, when I give aid, advice, and recommendations to those experiencing a panic attack, and they follow that advice, I feel better equipped to deal with my own attacks, if I am ever alone.  

If you need help or support with panic attacks talk to a counsellor at The Lighthouse Counselling Partnership

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