How To Properly Support A Loved One Having A Panic Attack

Even if you're fortunate enough to have never experienced a panic attack, there's a chance that you know someone who has gone through one. Although some people may just have a couple of them in their entire lifetime, others may have them regularly due to a wide array of reasons. While the direct cause has yet to be discovered, many researchers believe it could be due to the amygdala — the area of the brain where emotions are processed — not properly functioning.


It is estimated that up to 11% of people in the U.S. have a panic attack each year, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Those who experience them might feel overwhelmingly frightened at the height of the attack, despite not facing an actual threat. If you've had to stand by and watch a loved one experience such panic, it can be disheartening to feel like there is nothing that can be done. However, familiarizing yourself with the signs of an oncoming panic attack can put you in a better position to help a friend or family member in the future. Additionally, knowing what to avoid doing in the moment can do wonders in terms of helping the person and assisting in their recovery.

Learn the warning signs of an oncoming panic attack

A panic attack looks different for everyone, but there are some key indicators that can signify when one is developing. A person who is on the verge of having an attack might immediately start to feel dread, which can progress into shortness of breath. This can accelerate into a rapid heartbeat, shaking, and dizziness. Depending on the individual's personal experience with panic attacks, you may be able to ask them if they know their symptoms. This can give you a better opportunity to help if you're around them when a panic attack occurs in the future.


Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are often perceived to be the same thing, but there are notable differences between the two. Although panic attacks are associated with panic disorder, they can also be symptoms of certain mood disorders, trauma, and other medical conditions. It is important to note that not everyone who has a panic attack also has panic disorder — a condition that is considered to be an anxiety disorder, consisting of random panic attacks. When it comes to anxiety attacks, there are typically specific triggers that bring them on, and they don't occur as suddenly as panic attacks do. Symptoms of panic attacks are also often more intense than anxiety attacks.

What to avoid when a person is having a panic attack

Understanding what not to do when a person is experiencing a panic attack is just as important as knowing its causes. By educating yourself on what can potentially make the situation worse, you can be more helpful to a friend or family member during one of these difficult moments.


One mistake some people make while a loved one is having a panic attack is comparing it to their personal experiences with stress. As Healthline points out, this may not line up with an actual panic attack, in which a person might be feeling extreme fear. It's also important to remember that the individual is not just feeling stressed — this situation can also bring about feelings of helplessness and physical discomfort.

Being mindful of the words you use as a person is experiencing a panic attack is also critical. "Calling it 'just a panic attack' might make the person feel judged or dismissed," psychotherapist and author Satya Doyle Byock told The Cut. "It's better to say, 'I think you're having a panic attack' in a nonjudgmental way. Trying to get them to 'just stop' or 'calm down' is threatening and makes everything worse."


How to help a person engage in deep breathing

One of the most effective ways for a person experiencing a panic attack to minimize its symptoms is to focus on taking deep, slow breaths. This can be difficult for those who feel shortness of breath during an attack, but deep breathing can combat hyperventilation — a common symptom of panic.


If you are with a loved one during an attack, you can help by encouraging them to breathe in deeply through their nose, and then exhale slowly through their mouth. To keep the focus on their breath, you can also begin counting to five as they inhale and count to five each time they exhale. If you happen to be in a noisy or busy area, help your loved one find a quiet place where they can maintain their focus on breathing until symptoms subside. It's a common misperception that breathing into a paper bag while hyperventilating can help the situation. In fact, doing so is not generally recommended and can be dangerous, depending on the situation and underlying medical conditions.

If the panic attack is accompanied by arm or shoulder pain, chest pain, or continues for hours, do not hesitate to seek emergency medical care — these could be signs of a heart attack.


The benefits of physical comfort and grounding

While some people can find relief from a panic attack through deep breathing, others benefit from physical comforts. These can be in the form of everything from a hug to a soft blanket, but be sure to check with your loved one before trying to help them this way. "You might get a cup of water and just hold it — don't try to put it in their hand or make them drink it," Dr. Leah Katz, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, told The Cut. "Maybe get a blanket. Gently provide things without being too persistent or aggressive. Drinking something cold or hot, or taking a warm shower, or holding an ice cube can bring people back into their bodies."


It is not uncommon for those experiencing an attack to feel out of their body, confused, or unaware of their surroundings. Helping them get grounded and return to the present moment can minimize the effects of the attack. Some grounding techniques can be as simple as sitting down in a comfortable chair to relax, or focusing on different items in the environment. For example, identifying three items in the room, saying their colors out loud, and just touching the objects can help a person become more grounded.

Using positive language while helping someone in distress

The language you use while a friend or family member is experiencing a panic attack is critical. It can be easy to accidentally make a person feel worse, depending on the wording you use while trying to help. For example, minimizing their source of anxiety or shaming them for their panic can have a negative impact, even if that isn't your intention. It's also important to avoid putting extra pressure on them during this time until they can work through their feelings — remember, they lack control over their worries and panic. For similar reasons, it's typically not beneficial to offer advice until they are in a clearer state of mind.


Instead, one way you can help your loved one is by simply asking if they need assistance. The person experiencing the panic attack will have the most insight into how you can help with their specific situation. While speaking to them, try your best to use nonjudgmental language as well. If they're in the mood to talk, be engaging — this can potentially distract them from their symptoms. Using affirming language and helping them realize that the attack is temporary may also be beneficial.

How to give a person some space

Depending on the situation, your friend or family member who is having a panic attack may ask for space — this is a boundary you should respect, and it can also be immensely helpful to the person in need. While asking the person how you can help, one of the questions should be whether they want you to stay or go. If they are experiencing a fight-or-flight stress response, which may impede their ability to behave logically, try to be forgiving of their reaction. During a panic attack, a person might not be as polite or coherent while trying to work through the experience.


Assuming the individual is not in immediate danger, step back and give them the space they need until the panic attack is over. Remind them that you'll be available if they change their mind and want you to return.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.