Be Calm And Present: How To Help Someone With Anxiety Attack
By Jon Jaehnig
Updated June 02, 2020
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Anxiety attacks, also known as panic attacks, can be very frightening for both the person suffering through the episode as well as onlookers. If you're with someone when they have a panic attack, there are things you can do to help, even if you don't have any professional training. Here's how to help someone having an anxiety attack.
What Does an Anxiety Attack Look Like?
The symptoms of an anxiety attack can mirror symptoms of other serious, emergent medical issues, which can make it seem life-threatening. A true panic attack is not life-threatening, but if a sufferer does not understand what's happening, the fear of imminent death or true medical emergency can exacerbate their attack. Even if they do know that they're having a panic attack, the attack can be very difficult for them, and they may need support to get through it. Symptoms usually come on very quickly and can include all or some of the following:
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Sense of doom
- Numbness or tingling sensation in limbs
- Nausea or abdominal pain
- Dizziness or lightheadedness; feeling faint
- Experiencing chills or overheating
If you're with someone and you're not sure if their symptoms are the result of a panic or anxiety attack, ask them. If they struggle with a disorder like anxiety, they may recognize their symptoms. However, if neither of you are sure that their symptoms are the result of a panic attack, do not hesitate to call 911. Many of these symptoms are consistent with those of a heart attack, a severe allergic reaction, or other life-threatening medical events, so it's important to not rule out those possibilities. It's better to assume that the attack is serious than to assume it's a panic attack only to find out that you were wrong when it's too late.
How to Help Someone With Anxiety Attack
If you are with someone who is having an anxiety attack, there are several things you can do.
1. Be proactive. If you're going to spend a lot of time with someone, let them know early on that they can tell you about issues like anxiety. Some people may be uncomfortable sharing this information, but others will recognize that sharing this information may help you help them in the event of a panic attack. To navigate this space thoughtfully, invite them to tell you instead of asking them to tell you.
2. Eliminate the onlookers. Panic attacks can be dramatic events, and if they happen in a public place, it's natural for people to pay attention, even if they're just curious. Either way, a crowd is the last thing someone suffering from a panic attack needs or wants. If the person is mobile, help them walk to a calm, quiet space where they have some privacy. If they are not in a position to move, inform onlookers that the person is having a panic attack, and ask them to please give the person some space.
3. Ask the person if they think they are having a panic attack. As mentioned above, the individual may know what a panic attack is like for them. This can help you to rule out something more serious. Furthermore, people who are familiar with panic attacks know that panic attacks are not life-threatening, so acknowledging what's happening may help to calm them down. It may also help to calm you down.
4. If the person does not know if they are having a panic attack, call for help and then continue with the steps below. On the other hand, if the person thinks they're having a panic attack, ask if they have any medication. Many people who have panic attacks frequently have a prescribed sedative or other medication that can help them. If they do have medication, read the label to help them take the proper dose. It may take some time for the medication to take effect, so stay with them and continue the following steps.
5. Stay Calm. A panic attack is scary for the person suffering from it, but it can also be scary for the person who is helping them. No matter what, you need to stay calm. If you know that it's a panic attack, rest assured that the person is not in any real danger; instead they just need time and help to get through an episode.
6. One of the best ways to combat a panic attack is to regulate breathing. Do this by asking the person to take slow, deep breaths. You can also guide them through simple breathing exercises like inhaling while slowly counting to five and then exhaling while slowly counting to six. Alternatively, you might ask them to "breathe with you," and then breathe slowly and deeply. You may even help them to visualize the breath with your hands and then audibly breathe.
7. Be encouraging and avoid minimizing their symptoms. Symptoms of an anxiety attack are not life-threatening, but they are very real. Don't suggest that it's "no big deal" or "not serious." Instead, choose words that affirm their suffering and encourage them to get through it. Use phrases like, "You're doing great," "I'm right here with you," "You can do this," "I know you're scared right now, but I will keep you safe," and "you're going to be okay."
8. Ask the person if they want physical support. Everyone reacts differently to being touched. Some may find it comforting, and for others it may make matters worse, even if they usually don't mind being touched. If the person wants physical support, try gently rubbing their back or holding their hand to reassure them that you are with them. Respect any requests to stop touching immediately. Even people you know well may have different needs during an anxiety attack.
9. Continue support until help arrives or until the person tells you they're okay.
10. Take measures to prevent future attacks. Some people can avoid attacks through stress-reduction techniques like meditation. Though meditation seems to help everyone, it's not always enough. Some people require medication and/or therapy to manage their symptoms. Encourage the person you helped to get support.
People who struggle with panic attacks can learn to better manage their symptoms and their underlying condition by talking to a mental health professional. If you wrestle with anxiety or panic, there is help available to you. Professional counseling can help to identify the source of your anxiety, so you can find a way to heal. If someone you love experiences regular panic attacks, you may want help, too. It's okay to speak with a counselor to get the support you need while you're supporting them.
BetterHelp offers counseling in an online format, so it's confidential and convenient. Get counseling on your terms while you free yourself from panic and anxiety. You don't have to face the stress of driving to an appointment, or forcing yourself to confide to someone face-to-face. You may access BetterHelp's network of licensed counselors from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"It's amazing how beneficial therapy is. As a result of my work with Keith I went from too scared and anxious to leave the house with crippling panic, to being able to enjoy walks with my husband in the park, garden and we have even traveled by plane, and train. I've been able to leave some toxic relationships that weren't serving me, and now feel equipped to not only face life but to enjoy the richness and fullness of it. I highly recommend Keith as a counselor and the EMDR sessions."
"She is so kind, and patient, and caring. And she's encouraged me to use the messenger part more (we do phone sessions; I'm an elder millennial lol), which has been surprisingly helpful. It's like texting a friend when you're in panic mode. Except you don't have to worry about freaking out your friend or overwhelming them, and she replies so quickly. Not immediately, because people have lives. And always in a way that makes me feel validated and less alone with my problems. Honestly, just the fact that I took the time to write this says more about how much I appreciate all the support and work we've done together. Cause I always forget to do reviews, and I've got a lot going on. But talking to her makes things become reasonable again. Not fixed, or gone. She reminds me of my skills and power, and struggles I've gotten through, so I'm confident I'll get through this difficult time too. I really hope this doesn't sound like a commercial. I just really like this app, and this therapist specifically. I can sit on my own couch, or lie in bed, and still get the same quality I used to get when I could afford traditional therapy. Alright, gonna wrap this up. Dr. McGrath Fair is so great for me, I hope she is for you too."
Panic attacks are difficult to experience, and it's also hard to know what to do when someone is having an attack nearby. With the right tools, you can learn how to make these episodes safe, brief, and rare, so you can support yourself and the people around you. Take the first step.