How To Help Someone Experiencing A Panic Attack

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anxiety attacks can be frightening for the person experiencing them and those around them. If someone in your life is living with symptoms of anxiety, there are tangible ways you can support them while caring for your needs.  

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Learn how to help others cope with panic attacks

What can a panic attack look like?

The symptoms of an anxiety or panic attack often come up gradually and are related to a specific stressor. Unlike a panic attack, which can occur without reason and come on suddenly, an anxiety attack may be more prolonged and does not occur alongside derealization or dissociation. Symptoms often include severe symptoms of anxiety. In some cases, they may accompany physical symptoms.

While this experience can have significant intensity, the symptoms may arise slowly, building up over time. These attacks are often more extended than a panic attack. They could accompany physical symptoms like the following:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Racing heart
  • Sense of doom or terror
  • Numbness or tingling sensation in limbs
  • Sweating
  • Shaking and trembling
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Experiencing chills or overheating

Emotional symptoms may include:

  • Extreme worry
  • A sense of impending doom
  • Distress
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty self-controlling
  • Tunnel vision or hyperfocus
  • Feeling a loss of control of self and/or circumstances

If you're with someone experiencing these symptoms and you’re unsure whether it’s an anxiety or 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, it may be helpful to seek medical help. Symptoms of panic or anxiety can sometimes mimic those of a heart attack, a severe allergic reaction, or other life-threatening medical events. 

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How to support someone in the moment

Here are several steps you can take to support another person during and after the episode.

Ask: “Is there anything I can do to help?”

In some cases, an individual may not know whether they’re experiencing symptoms. In this scenario, gently ask how you can support them. They might respond well to words of encouragement, deep breathing, or other soothing exercises. In some other cases, a person may already have experience with this and a default set of tools to manage the symptoms. Whatever the case, your calm, helpful presence may guide them through the worst symptoms. 

Some people may prefer physical support, such as gently rubbing their back or holding their hand. Ask for consent before providing physical comfort and respect any requests to stop touching immediately. In some cases, people need space to focus on their thoughts and regain their composure. Hugging someone who doesn’t want to be touched during this experience may make anxiety worse. In addition, if someone wants to be left alone, respect their wishes, as pressure could also worsen anxiety.

Stay calm

For an onlooker, staying calm can be challenging when witnessing one. Remind yourself that they are not life-threatening and the individual can often find relief in the same day. If it reassures both of you, calmly let the person know that you think they’re experiencing one. Remind them that they’re safe and that the episode will end. Let them know you’re there to sit through it with them if they need it.

Try breathing exercises

Breathing exercises can be a beneficial tool for reducing anxiety and slowly returning the body to a baseline level of calm. Encourage the person to take deep breaths as slowly, deeply, and gently as possible through the nose. Then, ask them to breathe out in the same slow, gentle manner, but this time through the mouth.

During each breath, it may help them to close their eyes and focus entirely on breathing. If a person is prone to anxiety, it may also be helpful to ask them if they have any preferred breathing exercises when they’re not dysregulated. 

Validate their emotional and physical symptoms

The mental and physical symptoms are not life-threatening. While they may not seem severe to an onlooker, they’re real and frightening experiences for the person experiencing the attack. While you may not have the same fears and sources of anxiety, you can use the situation as an opportunity to get to know the person and better understand their fears and thought processes.

During a panic attack, use encouraging phrases that affirm their experience. You might choose an example from the following list of phrases:

  • "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."

Seek help after the panic attack 

During the episode, if the person is unsure whether they’re having an anxiety attack, panic attack, or medical emergency, it may be helpful to call for help. In these situations, it can be valuable to ensure their safety. If the person confirms that they’re experiencing one, remain with them until the symptoms subside. Check-in throughout the episode, but consider checking in afterward, too. If their anxiety 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.

Take care of yourself

If a friend or family member is experiencing regular anxiety, supporting them can be emotionally challenging. If you feel overwhelmed and uncertain of your role, know you can care for yourself first. Enlist others you trust or seek professional help from mental health professionals if possible. Talk to others about your own feelings and set appropriate boundaries to support your emotional health. If you invest significant energy in helping another person, you may lose the emotional capacity to care for yourself and your other relationships and commitments.

Suggest strategies to prevent future experiences

In some cases, people can reduce the likelihood of these events through stress-reduction techniques like meditation and mindfulness. Other people may use a combination of therapy and medication to manage the symptoms of anxiety, which may be due to an anxiety disorder. Encourage the individual to meet with a doctor and therapist, who can design a treatment plan tailored to their needs. 

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Learn how to help others cope with panic attacks

Support options for anxiety disorders and attacks

By meeting with a licensed therapist, people who experience attacks or an anxiety disorder may 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 anxiety disorders. However, in-person therapy can be inaccessible for some individuals.

In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be more convenient. Through an online platform, clients can meet with a therapist from a comfortable environment, such as their home. In addition, they can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. A chat session may be more comfortable for someone experiencing social anxiety.

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 these experiences. For those with more serious cases of anxiety or panic disorders, treatment centers are available in most states, with either in-patient or out-patient treatment and support options available depending on your circumstances and needs.

Takeaway

Anxiety attacks can be scary for everyone involved. However, with evidence-based tools and a therapist, you can learn how to become a helpful guide to someone experiencing a panic attack. To help yourself and those around you, consider connecting with a counselor online or in your area who can listen, offer unique insights, and encourage you to meet your mental health goals.

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