Panic attacks can be frightening for both the person experiencing them and those around them. If someone in your life is living with panic attacks or other symptoms of anxiety, there are tangible ways to support them while caring for your needs.
What Does A Panic Attack Look Like?
The symptoms of a panic attack often mirror the signs of other serious medical issues, which can make them especially unnerving. In some cases, the person experiencing the panic attack may fear that they’re dying or losing control of their mind.
Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
Sense of doom or terror
Numbness or tingling sensation in limbs
Shaking and trembling
Nausea or abdominal pain
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Experiencing chills or overheating
If you're with someone experiencing any of these symptoms and you’re unsure whether it’s a panic attack, ask the person if they have a history of anxiety. If it’s unclear whether the person is panicking or experiencing a more serious medical issue, do not hesitate to seek medical help. Many of these symptoms are consistent with those of a heart attack, a severe allergic reaction, or other life-threatening medical events. While panic attacks are not dangerous, it's important to rule out the possibility of a more serious condition.
How To Help Someone Experiencing A Panic Attack
If you are with someone who is having an anxiety attack, there are several things you can do to help them both during and after the episode.
Ask: “How Can I Help?”
Sometimes, the individual may not know whether they’re experiencing a panic attack. In this scenario, gently ask how you can support them: this might be with words of encouragement, deep breathing, or other soothing exercises. In other instances, a person may already have experience with panic attacks and a default set of tools to manage the symptoms. Whatever the case, your calm, helpful presence can often carry them through the worst symptoms.
Some people may prefer physical support, such as gently rubbing their back or holding their hand. Always ask for consent before providing any physical comfort and respect any requests to stop touching immediately. Sometimes, people simply need space to focus on their thoughts and regain their composure.
For an onlooker, staying calm can be the hardest part of witnessing a panic attack. Remind yourself that panic attacks are not life-threatening and usually short-lived. If it reassures both of you, calmly let the person know that you think they’re experiencing a panic attack; remind them that they’re safe and that the episode will end in a matter of minutes.
Try Breathing Exercises.
Breathing exercises are a simple yet powerful tool to reduce panic and slowly return the body to a baseline level of calm. Encourage the person to take deep breaths in as slowly, deeply, and gently as they can through the nose; then, breathe out in the same slow, gentle manner, but this time through the mouth. With each breath, it may help to close the eyes and focus entirely on breathing. If a person is prone to panic attacks, it’s also helpful to ask them if they have any preferred breathing exercises when they’re not panicking. With these tools in mind, you’ll know to use them in the event of a panic attack.
Validate Their Symptoms.
The mental and physical symptoms of a panic attack are not life-threatening, but they’re very real and frightening experiences. While you may not have the same fears and sources of anxiety, this is an opportunity to get to know the person and better understand their fears and thought processes. In the midst of a panic attack, use encouraging phrases that affirm their experience, such as:
"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.”
"You're going to be okay."
5. Seek Help After The Panic Attack
During the episode, if the person is unsure whether they’re having a panic attack, call for help. In these situations, it’s best to ensure their safety. If the person confirms that they’re experiencing a panic attack, remain with them until the symptoms subside. Check in throughout the episode, but be sure to check in afterward, too. If their panic attacks are frequent, the person may appreciate your future support at a doctor’s appointment or assistance in researching other options for mental health support.
6. Take Care Of Yourself
If your friend or loved one is experiencing regular panic attacks, supporting them can be emotionally challenging. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and uncertain of your role, remember to take care of your needs first. If possible, enlist other people (and, ideally, mental health professionals) to offer additional support. Talk to others about your feelings, and set appropriate boundaries. If you invest too much energy in helping another person, you may lose the emotional capacity to take care of yourself and your other relationships and commitments.
7. Develop Strategies To Prevent Future Panic Attacks
In some cases, people can reduce the likelihood of panic attacks through stress-reduction techniques like meditation and mindfulness. Other people may use a combination of therapy and medication to manage the symptoms of panic disorder. Ultimately, the first step is to encourage the person to meet with a doctor and therapist, who can design a treatment plan tailored to their needs.
Therapy For Panic Attacks
By meeting with a licensed therapist, people who experience panic attacks can learn to manage their symptoms and improve their overall mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is widely recognized as an effective therapy for people who live with panic disorder and other anxiety conditions. If you’re interested in online therapy, studies suggest digital CBT is as effective as in-person CBT sessions.
In a study of therapist-supported online CBT, researchers evaluated the efficacy of online CBT in treating symptoms of anxiety disorders in adults. The report includes results from 30 studies with over 2,000 participants and examines the effects of online CBT on panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and other related conditions. The researchers concluded that online CBT is an effective treatment for anxiety disorders and can help individuals manage their symptoms by evaluating negative thought patterns that may lead to panic attacks.
In general, online therapy is a convenient, affordable option for those experiencing panic attacks and loved ones who want to learn how to support them. With an online platform like BetterHelp, you can seek professional help on your own terms. These qualified mental health professionals are trained in a variety of therapeutic approaches, and many are familiar with CBT and other strategies used to treat panic attacks. Below are reviews from people who have learned how to manage their anxiety with the guidance of a BetterHelp counselor.
"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."
How do you calm yourself down from a panic attack?
Panic attacks can be frightening and difficult situations, and they often come on suddenly. Knowing what to do when they happen can be important for both managing panic attacks yourself and helping others do the same.
Strategies that may help you calm yourself down from a panic attack include:
- Going somewhere safe and quiet
- Taking long, slow breaths
- Finding a nearby object to examine with all five senses
- Using positive affirmations like “I’m going to be okay” and “This will pass”
- Going for a gentle walk
- Avoiding using drugs or alcohol, which may make symptoms worse
In addition to these immediate methods, getting support through therapy, support groups, or loved ones may help to prevent future panic attacks and improve general well-being.
How can I help someone with a panic attack online?
It can be difficult to know how to help someone having an anxiety attack or a panic attack, especially if you aren’t with them in person. That said, some of the same tips for managing panic attacks in person may also apply to helping someone remotely. These include:
- Offer support and tell them you’re there for them
- Use affirmative statements like “I understand” and “You’re going to get through this”
- Remind the person to breathe slowly and use breathing exercises like box breathing
- Have the person focus on three things they can see, three things they can hear, and three things they can touch
- Remember to stay safe, be aware of your own feelings, and take care of yourself if you feel overwhelmed
- Encourage them to seek in-person support if needed, if they haven’t already done so
These are a few ways to support someone during a panic attack, even if you aren’t with them in person. Other ways to help people remotely may include supporting anxiety-related nonprofits and volunteering for chat lines like the Crisis Text Line.
How do you know if you are recovering from anxiety?
Knowing if you are recovering from anxiety can depend on the type of anxiety you’re experiencing, your treatment plan, and your individual situation. Often, a reduction in symptoms can be an important sign that you are recovering. If you have severe anxiety or panic disorder, signs of recovery might include having fewer anxiety or panic attacks than before. Similarly, if you notice a reduction in physical symptoms or you find that anxiety and panic are interfering less with your daily life, these may also be signs of recovery. That said, what the recovery process looks like can vary.
How long does it take to recover from an anxiety disorder?
With proper treatment and support, some people with anxiety disorders may start to feel better within a few weeks, while for others, this process may take a year or more. It can be important to remember that not everyone experiences anxiety the same way, and to allow yourself to recover at your own pace.
Does anxiety disorder go away with treatment?
Anxiety disorder is typically considered a chronic condition, meaning it may not be possible to permanently “cure” it. That said, remission from anxiety is often possible with proper treatment and support.
Does rest help with anxiety?
Not getting adequate sleep can contribute to feelings of anxiety. On the flip side, sleep may help reduce symptoms of anxiety by reducing stress hormones and improving mood and focus. If you are experiencing anxiety, you may benefit from practicing healthy sleep habits, such as keeping a regular sleep schedule and avoiding screens before bed.
Does anxiety disorder go away on its own?
For some people, symptoms of anxiety disorder may decrease on their own or through self-care strategies. However, other people may require outside support, such as therapy or medication, to manage their anxiety. Left unaddressed, anxiety disorders can cause people to engage in unhealthy behaviors. Examples of these include going out of their way to avoid surprises and stressors, withdrawing socially, and misusing substances. Untreated anxiety disorders may also contribute to high blood pressure, physical pain, and other mental illnesses, like depression. That said, this can depend on the person.
How can I calm my anxiety at night naturally?
Anxiety disorders can sometimes cause nightmares, sweating, or other nighttime symptoms. Some people with anxiety disorders may even experience panic attacks at night.
Some methods for calming nighttime anxiety may include:
- Going into another room
- Doing a relaxing activity if you can’t get back to sleep, such as reading or listening to a podcast
- Using relaxation exercises, such as box breathing or progressive muscle relaxation
- Keeping your room cool and dark
- Writing about what’s bothering you
- Practicing meditation
- Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon
- Avoiding screens before bedtime
- Exercising regularly
These strategies may help to reduce anxiety, both before bed and during the night.
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