Helping People Through Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are terrifying – both to the person going through it and to anyone who may be around while they happen

I know for a fact that the times where my friend’s have witnessed me having panic attacks they have straight up just thought that I was dying and a couple genuinely considered phoning me an ambulance – luckily my panic attacks have never gotten to the stage where I have needed to go to hospitals and I have since been able to explain to those around me that, when they do happen, it’s not me dying and I don’t need an ambulance

But I can completely understand that a lot of people won’t know how to best help their friend or family member through a panic attack, especially if it’s something that they themselves haven’t experienced. And so I thought that I’d try to help anyone out who may be feeling lost as to how to help their friend or family member or whoever it may be to cope with their panic attacks

This is based off of (mostly) my own personal experiences and also what my friends have said as well as a little of the research that I did for myself when I was trying to figure it all out, so while this may not work for everyone, it’s a starting point

What are panic attacks?

When trying to understand how best to help someone through a panic attack, I figured that a good place to start is to just try to explain what a panic attack is in the first place – why does it happen? What are the common symptoms? Those kinds of questions that may at first seem obvious but actually… kind of aren’t

Panic attacks, at their core, are a symptom of anxiety. Essentially, they are sudden rushes of fear or panic which often come as a result of being placed into a situation that the person is uncomfortable about or fearful of. A common misconception, however, is that they can only occur in those situations – for example a lot of my close friends thought that I only got panic attacks when I was in a public area or when I was placed in front of something that I was scared of (heights or snakes etc.)

That’s not actually the case, though

While it is true that panic attacks are often brought on by being placed into a situation that is distressing to them, sometimes they do just come seemingly out of the blue. I don’t have to be out in public or on top of the Eiffel Tower or whatever to be plunged headfirst into a panic attack – sometimes they happen in the most mundane situations like if I’m sitting at home watching a video or something. What I’m trying to say is that no, there isn’t always a clear cause to the panic attacks, in fact sometimes there might not be a cause full stop

It largely depends on the type of anxiety disorder that the person has but the point that I’m trying to get at in a very long-winded round-about way is that a lot of people tend to dismiss a panic attack as being something else just because they don’t think that their friend or the person having aforementioned panic attack has been placed into a daunting situation for them

In the same vein, you have to keep in mind that (in particular those with social anxiety or social phobia) anxious people or people with panic disorder tend to perceive a ‘daunting’ situation differently to others. While you may not find an unexpected encounter with a neighbour scary, that can be enough to send someone with social anxiety spiralling into a panic attack

I went on a bit of a tangent there, but anyway, back to the point: panic attacks are, at their core, a rush of fear that leads to a lot of really shit symptoms and they always feel completely out of your control

The most common symptoms of panic attacks are things like shaking, dizziness, heart palpitations, nausea, sweating, breathlessness. To the person experiencing them they can genuinely feel like they’re going to die – when I’m experiencing a really bad one, I sometimes have to just chant to myself a reminder that that’s not what’s happening. While panic attacks are horrible and terrifying, their symptoms are not dangerous

Space

So I want to reiterate again that panic attacks and anxiety in general is something that varies from person to person so some of this advice might not be relevant to you. However, one of the most common topics that come up when speaking on the topic of panic attacks is space

I’ve spoken briefly before in a different post about how I’ve found panic attacks to be misrepresented in media and one of the aspects of this that often comes up is to do with space and touching during panic attacks

I can understand that if someone you care about is going through something like that then of course you want to comfort them the best that you can. And a lot of the time, giving someone a hug is the go-to way of comforting them. However, for a lot of people, having a panic attack can feel a bit like the walls are closing in around you, as though you are suffocating in an invisible box. With those thoughts and feelings, being hugged and touched as friendly and comforting as it may be, oftentimes doesn’t help because the person feels crowded and even more overwhelmed

If you don’t know how a person would usually handle their panic attacks, some good blanket advice is to just try to give them as much space as you can. Don’t touch them, don’t sit too close to them as it can make them feel so, so overwhelmed and can occasionally send them spiralling further as I know it has for me in the past. That’s not to say to leave them alone at all – talking to them, trying to help them regulate their breathing is all so helpful, but if you’re not sure their stance the safe bet is to give them as much breathing room as possible

Calming Down

So, as I mentioned above, while giving them space is always a good idea if you’re not sure how exactly to help them manage, you can talk to them. In the initial section I explained that a panic attack comes from a sudden rush of fear and when someone is scared or nervous they want to be comforted, to be told that everything will be okay

And I know that some people are reluctant to assure others that “everything will be okay” over something that they’re not sure about or not educated in. But I am here to tell you outright that they will be okay after a panic attack. They are so incredibly shit to experience and they are scary no matter how many times a person has been through them, but they will be okay. Panic attacks can last for five minutes up to an hour or even longer in some cases and it does feel like they’re never going to be okay again. But they are

And while it’s all very well and good me saying that right now, I know for a fact that all that logic goes right out the window the moment that I have a panic attack and I am so, so sure that I’m going to die in that moment

And when you witness someone going through one, it can of course be incredibly difficult to keep a level head about it, too. But please do try to remind them that they honestly will be okay

Talk to them quietly – normal speaking voices can feel like shouting to some people when they’re in the midst of a panic attack

Reassure them – offering them reassurance will also work to calm yourself down, which is what’s needed in this kind of situation. You need to stay calm for them because they’re currently feeling like the world is crashing in on them

Calming techniques – of course it is by no means your job to coach someone through a panic attack. But I would recommend that everyone has a couple of breathing exercises on hand even just for themselves in case nerves get too much. And most people who regularly experience panic attacks will most likely already have a couple of these for themselves, but in the moment (as I’m sure you can understand) it can be difficult to access that part of your memory. But below are just a couple of my go-to techniques when I need them

(Also I never realised how literally all of these are numbers, that night be quite confusing sorry)

  • 5,4,3,2,1 – this is a grounding technique. List five things that you can see, four things that you can touch, three things that you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing that you can taste
  • 4-7-8 breaths – a breathing exercise where you breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven seconds and then breathe out for eight seconds
  • Describe – find a point of focus, be it an object or a person and describe it/them out loud in as much detail as possible

Public Spaces

Having a panic attack out in public is genuinely one of the worst experiences imaginable

To be that out of control of your own mind and body is distressing even when in a familiar environment like your home, so it is overwhelmingly awful to go through it in a place where it feels as though literally anyone could walk in and see you

Especially when at work. Being in the workplace and trying to get control of your anxiety is the worst feeling in the world, definitely not talking from experience (side note that’s totally unrelated: social phobia/anxiety does not mix well with working as a waitress)

If someone you know has a panic attack in public, please don’t draw attention to it. Chances are, they’re probably already feeling as though they’ve got the weight of the world’s eyes on them when in reality very few people have probably actually noticed. So please, please don’t draw attention to it if you do notice someone struggling

(teenage parties are also mortifying when you have social anxiety – another totally unrelated side note)

Instead, try to help them away from the situation as best you can – take them somewhere quiet, away from other people if there’s crowds around. If they’re inside and don’t have agoraphobia or something similar then take them outside if possible to help them to try to breathe easier

Basically, just do your best to help them away from any crowds and the situation itself that triggered them and bring as little attention to them as possible

The Come Down

A panic attack doesn’t end when it ends

Ignore how contradictory that was and just stay with me

Following a panic attack there comes a complete crash and that crash is often just as difficult to know how to manage. The person will just be utterly exhausted and will likely feel highly uncomfortable, they’ll just want to get back to somewhere that they feel safe and secure

And I know that when I have a panic attack around others I always feel really, really guilty afterwards for my friends or family members having to witness it and try to coach me through it

It’s during the after-crash when I need physical comfort and I know that a lot of others feel the same way. I want to be hugged and reassured that it’s okay, so if you’re with a friend after they’ve had a panic attack, that’s the best thing that you can do – be there for them, comfort them and assure them that they are okay and that they don’t have anything to be feeling guilty about

Talking it Through

I’ve said this pretty repeatedly throughout this post, but I’m going to reiterate it again: mental health is different for everyone, everyone manages their panic attacks in different ways

This post is just general advice based off of the experiences of myself, my friends and the more common ways of managing panic attacks

But if there is someone in your life who regularly has panic attacks and you want to help them manage them, the best thing that you can do is to talk to them about it

I know that it can be an awful, uncomfortable conversation and a lot of people are really nervous about opening up over things like this and so it may be difficult to talk about it. But it is important to talk to them to find out what works for them to get through their panic attacks and to manage their anxiety

It took me ages to properly talk about my own experiences with my friends, but when I did they were really understanding, to the point where a couple of them bring their own versions of my “Emergency Kit” when we’re hanging out (it’s got stuff that I use to ground myself and manage panic attacks in), of course it’s not a solution to anxiety and the attacks still suck absolute balls, but it’s a relief to know that I have people who have my back and who will take care of me as best they can

And I hope that this post has been helpful in making it a little easier for anyone reading it to be able to help their friends or family member who experiences panic attacks

Drop your own suggestions in the comments or send them to me privately if you’d prefer and I’ll make another post in a couple of months with more ideas of how to help someone through a panic attack

In the meantime, though, I hope that you guys are well!

Freddie 🐸

Published by Freddie

Hi! My name's Freddie, I'm 19 years old and use she/her pronouns. I use knitting as a way to healthily try and cope with my mental health (me and my friends call it Norbert). I mostly make animals though also have branched out into clothing (jumpers and hats mostly) and I thought that blogging about it might be a way to help others who have also been struggling!

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