Helping someone with panic attacks

Whether it’s your mate or your mum, panic attacks can be scary to watch. Here’s how to support someone who’s having a panic attack while keeping yourself calm.

girl helping panic attack

Breathing slowly with them helps

How do I know if someone’s having a panic attack?

You’ll probably notice their breathing first – although they may have experienced other symptoms such as nausea and feeling hot or dizzy beforehand. This can get really fast and shallow when a panic attack is starting. They may also be trembling and sweating.

There’s no reason to panic! Can’t they just calm down?

No, they really can’t, no matter how illogical you think they’re being. People have panic attacks because they feel threatened or afraid. Their body’s ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and floods their brain with chemicals. Their brain truly believes they’re in danger, so you can’t just talk them out of it.

“Rational thought won’t be available to them,” says psychotherapist Julie Hurst from the Work Life Balance Centre. “Our fight or flight system was for getting us out of the way of sabre-toothed tigers when we lived in caves. It isn’t made for reasoning,” she says.

How can I help someone who’s having a panic attack?

Seeing someone have a panic attack can be frightening, but it won’t help if you panic, too. Try and keep calm and follow these tips:

  • Get them to focus on their breathing Try the breathing exercise in The Mix’s guide to coping with a panic attack. Taking slow controlled breaths for at least two minutes will not only help the person who’s panicking, it’s also a great way to keep calm yourself.
  • Stamp on the spot with them Sounds weird, but it works. “March on the spot together, stamp your feet and release some of those stress hormones,” suggests Anxiety UK-approved therapist Eve Menezes Cunningham. “Also get them to try and name five things they can see around them, this will help them get out of their own head.”

Will they have another panic attack?

They could do, or it may be a complete one-off – it varies from person to person. Some people have one or two panic attacks and then never have another one. But it’s best to be prepared in case it happens again.

Try and learn to spot the early signs so you can help them in the future. “Ask them about the first thing they noticed,” says Julie. “Catch panic attacks early and they might not go into full-blown panic.”

They’re avoiding things in case they panic. What do I do?

If your mate won’t watch their favourite band, what should you do? Find a new gig buddy or push them to go and risk another panic attack?

It’s tempting to avoid anything that might make them panic – even the things they enjoy. That doesn’t actually work, though, and can make them more scared and limited in the longer term. “Panic is like marshmallow,” says Julie. “It expands to take up all the room you give it.”

Here’s what you can do to help instead:

Break things they’re scared of into steps

Don’t expect them to grit their teeth and get over it. Whatever they’re trying to do – whether it’s going to the cinema, or even walking down the street – break the scariness down into small steps.

“If they once had a panic attack in a shop and refuse to go back there, take them to the shop and just sit outside,” says Julie. “Creep closer each time and keep pausing to let their fight or flight system resettle.”

Don’t be too pushy

Facing their fears won’t be easy, so try to be patient and let them know you’re still here come what may. Eve says even gentle encouragement can feel threatening. “The safer they feel, the more easily they can take risks, no matter how tame these might seem to you. And celebrate successes, no matter how small,” she says.

How can I look after myself if I find it all too much?

It’s OK to acknowledge your own feelings about the situation and to prioritise yourself sometimes. Take time to do things that help you relax and let off steam, whether it’s watching TV or going for a run. “You’re no use to anyone if you’re running on empty yourself,” says Eve. “Your needs matter too.”

Don’t feel you have to avoid the things they’re avoiding. You’re not being disloyal if you go to the cinema when they can’t. (Try to tell them about it kindly, though.)

Can they get help for their panic attacks?

You should try and get them to see their GP, as the symptoms of panic attacks can be caused by other medical conditions. Once other causes are ruled out, they can ask their doctor to refer them for counselling. These organisations can also help. Panic attacks can be successfully treated with counselling and some people find it only takes a few sessions.

What if they won’t get help?

It can be really frustrating if you know someone needs help and they won’t get it, but try to be patient. Some people feel ashamed of having panic attacks, even though they’re actually very common. The thought of talking about them can be, well, panic-inducing. So you might need to suggest it several times.

You can’t force them to get help, but you can keep encouraging them. Remind them that GPs see lots of people who have panic attacks and aren’t going to laugh at them.

Whatever happens, try to see the person as well as the panic attacks. “Remember that, no matter how severe their symptoms are, there’s more to them than this,” says Eve.

Next Steps

  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
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By Anne Wollenberg

Updated on 29-Sep-2015