Helping someone who is experiencing a panic attack can be a challenging experience, but there are a few things you can do to help make the situation more manageable. It’s important to note that some people may be hesitant to share that they are experiencing a panic attack, or even reluctant to receive support, so it’s always a good idea to approach the situation gently and non-judgmentally.
If someone you know is having a panic attack, the following tips may help you to support them:
Recognising when someone is having a panic attack is the first step in helping them
It’s important to understand that panic attacks can present differently for everyone, but some common symptoms to look out for include:
- Racing or pounding heart or heart palpitations
- Trembling or shaking
- Chest pain, tightness or discomfort
- A choking feeling
- Sweating, chills or feeling hot all over
- Nausea or stomach pains
- Feeling short of breath or smothered
- Feeling dizzy, numb, faint, lightheaded or unsteady
- Derealisation (feeling like everything around you doesn’t feel real) or depersonalisation (feeling detached from yourself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
Encourage them to focus on their breathing
Breathing exercises can help to slow down a racing heart and reduce hyperventilation. Encourage the person to take deep, slow breaths. Gently suggest that they breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and exhale for a count of four. Depending on your relationship with the person, it might even help to do this exercise together.
Although it’s essential to try to get breathing back to a normal rate and rhythm when we’re panicking, for some people focusing on the breath actually increases their anxiety levels. If this is the case, try grounding techniques (see below) instead and then come back to breathing once they feel more settled.
Remind them that they are not in danger
Panic attacks can be incredibly distressing. Often people feel like they are in danger during an attack, or even that they might die. Reassure the person that they are safe, and the panic attack will pass.
Help them to find a quiet and safe place
Panic attacks can be overwhelming, and it can be helpful to find a quiet and safe space to help the person feel more grounded. This could be a quiet room, a park, or even a bathroom.
Offer a grounding technique
Grounding techniques can help to distract our minds from the physical symptoms of panic. A basic grounding technique is to encourage the person to focus on their surroundings by naming five things that they can see, hear, and touch. For other simple grounding ideas, check out our post about grounding exercises.
Be present and listen
Simply being there for someone who is experiencing a panic attack can be comforting. Listen to their concerns, and offer them support and reassurance. It’s important to let them know that they are not alone.
Consider what might help if there’s a next time
Depending on the nature of your relationship with the person, down the track when the panic attack has passed and the time feels right, you might want to ask them if it would help to have a plan for next time. Having a plan in place, and knowing how you can help, can be useful for both of you.
For ideas, take a look at our other blog post about how to get through a panic attack.
You can’t fix the panic for them
Remember, it’s not your job to “fix” the panic attack. Your role is to offer support and help the person feel safe and grounded. Panic attacks can be scary and overwhelming, but with your help, the person can get through it.
According to Beyondblue, around 40% of Australians have at least one or two panic attacks in their lifetime. So this is an experience many of us will have at some point. If you or someone you know is experiencing panic, it’s a very treatable condition. Our psychologists and therapists can equip you with the knowledge and skills to get on top of panic attacks. To find out more call our friendly Support Team on (03) 9376 1958 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.