How to Handle Someone Else’s Anxiety or Panic Attacks
The unofficial dos and don’ts of being around someone with an anxiety disorder.
Frequently on the Internet I see various articles for sufferers of anxiety or panic disorders about how to deal with anxiety or panic attacks while they’re happening. What I see less often is articles with information for friends and family of a sufferer on how to help them. It certainly shouldn’t be anyone else’s responsibility to fix the problem because that can only truly be done by the person who’s experiencing the anxiety. But the easiest way for a person to overcome anxiety or panic is having someone they are completely comfortable with around them — someone that can assure them everything is going to be okay.
I’ve been fortunate enough to clear up a lot of my issues thanks to these points and additional lifestyle changes like diet and exercise. Based on my experience talking with others, many people can relate. Please know I am not a doctor, and if you think you or someone else is having serious issues with anxiety or panic disorders, seek professional medical advice. I just write these tips based on my own experience.
- Do remind the person having a panic attack that they are in no way obligated to stay where they are. They can leave if they are panicking about something or feel uncomfortable. Offer them a ride home if necessary after observing the person’s current mental capacity. Absolutely don’t pressure them to do something they don’t want to do.
- Do assure them there is nothing to be afraid of. Someone experiencing a panic attack will probably find it a lot harder to rationalize the fact that there’s no real reason to be panicking, that’s the sad truth. Remind them they are completely safe and that you are there to help them through this.
- Do let them know that it’s only temporary. Panic attacks don’t and will never last forever. Despite the terrible mental state the sufferer might be in, it’s comforting to know that it will go away soon.
- Do encourage them to breathe. Breathing is particularly difficult during a panic attack and someone experiencing it could forget to breathe properly. Tell them to take a deep breath in for four seconds, then let it out for four seconds and repeat. Breathing helps, but it only helps when done correctly.
- Do attempt to have an engaging conversation with them. Chances are if you’re a friend, you know what piques the person’s interest. Try to casually bring the topic up. Don’t bombard the person in a panic attack with a lengthy conversation as this could be overwhelming, but try to slowly capture their interest and lure them away from the feeling of panic.
- Do stay with them. If the person panicking wants you to leave, it’s most likely the anxiety talking. More often than not, a panic attack only gets worse if the person is left alone to suffer through their own thoughts. Stay by their side no matter what.
- Don’t let denial fool you. No matter how comfortable I am around a person, if they ask if everything’s okay when they accurately sense something is not, I assure them everything is fine. I imagine many people do the same. Don’t let this fool you. If the symptoms of a panic attack are apparent, treat the situation as such.
- Don’t tell them to calm down or relax. There’s a huge chance this will only make the anxiety worse. It’s not as simple as being able to “calm down” or “relax” so don’t suggest it.
- Don’t ask why they’re panicking. The sufferer probably knows just as much as you do in that moment.
- Don’t brush it off. You might be in the company of someone who is on their 37th panic attack this year alone. Don’t think that by now they’re used to it. Every panic attack is every bit as traumatizing as the previous one. Certainly don’t brush off or ignore any panic attack, no matter what the circumstances are.
- Don’t bullshit. “Look over there at that bird!” “Stare at me for 10 seconds.” “Close your eyes and picture a nice glowing star.” No, no, and no. Don’t bullshit someone while they’re in a panic attack. None of that works and you know it. The person panicking will be fully aware that you’re trying to distract them temporarily from the panic, which won’t help at all.
- Don’t seem irritated or judgmental. This sounds obvious, but it’s important. One of my biggest fears is that when I’m having a panic attack, I’m inconveniencing people or people are judging me because they don’t understand what the problem is. Even if you are somewhat annoyed, maintain composure and keep in mind that you are nowhere near as annoyed as the person actually experiencing the panic attack is.
It’s immensely important that someone having a panic attack or even just regular anxiety is able to surround himself or herself with people they’re completely comfortable with. Trust me, that alone helps dramatically.
As the friend or family member, you may not even understand how much you’re helping someone with anxiety when you say something as small as “It’s okay, you aren’t trapped.” The small act of helpfulness can work wonders, so never underestimate yourself.
Understanding Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Now that you know the dos and don’ts of handling someone going through a panic attack, you might actually want to know what a panic attack is. First of all, anxiety is typically an irrational fear over something or someone. This is not to be confused with nervousness — what most people experience in normal situations. Nervousness and anxiety can both cause similar symptoms, but normal nervousness such as how one feels before making a big presentation or applying for a job differs from anxiety in that it’s rational.
People, like myself, who suffer from anxiety disorders exhibit anxiety or “nervousness” from actions as simple as leaving home or being in a noisy or crowded area, for example. Much of it is post-traumatic as well. Certain plans I make with certain people will trigger anxiety that can last for up to 24 hours or longer. After having my spontaneous panic attack in the middle of a movie at a theater for no reason, I developed anxiety going to movie theaters for several months before I finally decided I needed to face the fear head-on. Very little about anxiety is rational, especially the thoughts that enter through the person’s head during the anxiety. It’s extremely irrational and in many cases the person knows how irrational it is but it still remains out of their control.
Panic attacks are short bursts of heightened anxiety that can often come out of nowhere. While they can only last for up to around 25 minutes or as little as 5 minutes, they can come and go in a continuous loop until whatever is causing them is resolved. This is particularly difficult and scary when the person isn’t aware of what’s causing them to panic in the first place.
Symptoms of Panic Attacks
Picture this: you’re asleep at night when suddenly you wake up to the sound of someone breaking into your house. What do you do? You panic, like every sane human being would. You start to sweat, you breathe heavily or struggle to breathe, you feel nauseous, your heart races, there’s a heavy pressure in your chest, so on and so forth.
Now picture something else: all of those symptoms happening when you aren’t actually in any danger. No one is breaking into your house. Nothing is about to harm you or is currently harming you. Your body suddenly just starts to panic anyway. That is a panic attack.
Symptoms of panic attacks, particularly mine, include:
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
- Heavy breathing or inability to breathe properly, resulting in cut-off words or sentences if one attempts to speak
- Heavy pressure in the chest area
- Fast-beating heart
- Nausea and/or the need to use the bathroom promptly
- The seemingly uncontrollable feeling of being trapped, paralyzed, suffocated, and/or terrorized in any way
Being that this is an issue especially important to me, I think it’s important that everyone knows how to help someone who is going through a panic attack because it’s truly a terrifying experience. Given that 18% of Americans are estimated to have an anxiety disorder, there’s a decent chance you know someone who has one. Please share this article to increase awareness and understanding. Thank you so much for your cooperation and for getting all the way to the bottom of this article. Your passion to help will never go unnoticed or unappreciated.
Update: Over five years later, I’ve written a follow-up. It’s probably not what you expected. It’s not what I expected either: I Was Going to Write 5 Tips for Overcoming Anxiety. Then I Had a Panic Attack.