Panic attacks are scary for those having them. Observing someone else having a panic attack can also be anxiety provoking, especially if the person having the panic attack is a loved one.
Knowing how to help someone with a panic attack can help you to stay calm and confident. This in turn will be helpful to the person having the panic attack.
You can help someone who is having a panic attack by:
1. Helping label their feelings
2. Providing empathy and reassurance
3. Educating about what a panic attack really is
4. Helping regain a sense of control
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden and uncontrollable feeling of fear and anxiety.
Panic attacks can happen during specific feared situations and they can happen randomly during periods of non-threatening, normal activities such as sitting and watching TV.
After experiencing a first panic attack, the fear becomes about experiencing another one.
People often believe the myths about panic attacks. These myths further fuel their fear. So it's important to know the symptoms and what is actually happening.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
Trembling or shaking
Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
Feelings of choking
Chest pain or discomfort
Nausea or abdominal distress
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
Chills or heat sensations
Numbness or tingling sensations
De-realization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
Fear of dying
What Causes A Panic Attack
Stress and Anxiety
Chronic stress adds up overtime. If you don’t find a way to cope with the stress, your body will respond with anxiety. This leaves you vulnerable to panic attacks.
A buildup of stress from life events such as losing a job, death of a loved one, or divorce may cause symptoms of anxiety that could lead to a panic attack.
Our bodies experience a physiological response to these stresses that could lead to symptoms of a panic attack.
Catastrophic thoughts turn on the body's fight or flight stress response that could lead to panic attacks.
Misinterpretation of bodily sensations is another common trigger for a panic attack.
Two minutes after running up a flight of stairs, a pounding heart and shortness of breath is misinterpreted as an internal threat such as a heart attack or other cardiac event.
This misinterpretation causes fear of survival which turns on the flight or freeze response. This increases the heart rate and physical discomfort further and confirms the person’s misinterpretation of physical danger.
Behaviorally avoiding situations that are associated with panic attacks only temporarily relieves anxiety.
Avoidance actually strengthens anxiety and panic.
When having a panic attack you most likely have been running away from the situation, avoiding situations you associate with panic attacks, or becoming over-controlled when feeling anxious.
Avoiding confirms and maintains the belief that the situation and/or the symptoms are dangerous. You might not have a panic attack by avoiding a particular place but you have also reinforced that whatever you just avoided is dangerous.
How To Help Someone With A Panic Attack
1. Label the Feelings
The first thing to do to help someone with a panic attack is to ask them how they are feeling.
Asking someone to label and name their feelings during a panic attack will help move them from reacting and panicking to problem solving.
This will begin to increase their sense of control.
Stay calm and use a soothing voice to ask what they are feeling emotionally and physically.
If the person is not able to describe what they are feeling, then ask about specific feelings; “Are you feeling scared? Do you feel shaky or wobbly in the legs? Where in your body do you feel it and what does it feel like?”
2. Provide Empathy and Reassurance
Tell the person that you know how scary this must be.
Confidently say “You are safe, it’s going to be OK, you will get through this, and I am going to help you.”
Tell them that the feelings in their body will go away and that the feelings are actually similar to feeling excited.
3. Tell Them What a Panic Attack Is and Not to Believe the Myths
To help a person with a panic attack, tell them what a panic attack is.
Say “The feelings you are having is your body’s way of helping you if there is danger. But sometimes our body makes a mistake and prepares us when there is no danger.
Kind of like a fire drill. There is no fire but the alarm stills goes off really loud.”
“This alarm in our body gives us extra strength and speed. That’s why our heart beats faster and we breathe faster, just like when you are running. Just like when you are excited for something fun.”
“These feelings go away quickly, especially when our body gets the message that there is no danger.”
4. Help Regain a Sense of Control
Panic attacks cause people to feel out of control and to be afraid that they will lose more control. So anything that they can do to feel more in control will be helpful.
Deep breathing is a great way to exercise control over one’s body.
Encourage the person to do deep breathing. “Take a deep breath, fill up your lungs, and hold your breath for a count of 2. Then forcefully blow the air out like you are trying to blow up a balloon.”
Ask the person to look around the room and name all the blue or green things that they can see.
Ask the person what they can smell and hear. This will shift their focus from the uncomfortable internal physical and mental feelings to external tangible objects.
Give the person a glass of ice water and ask them to take a few sips.
Drinking cold water helps to activate the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system or the “Rest and Digest system.”
Change Fearful Thinking
Remind the person that it is only a false alarm and there is no danger.
Help them understand how powerful their thoughts are and have have them count backwards from 200.
Ask them to think about their favorite food and what it tastes and smells like.
Encourage them to use Self-Talk to help change their thinking, “I know there is no danger, it’s only a false alarm. I can think of funny things or I can think of cinnamon rolls and how delicious they taste and how I love the smell when they are cooking.”
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Help a person with a panic attack by encouraging them to do muscle relaxation exercises.
From a seated position begin by tensing your legs and buttocks for a count of 5, then relax
Tense your abdomen for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5
Tense your arms for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5
Shrug your shoulders to your ears and tense for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5
Press your tongue to the roof of your mount for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5
Tips: Let all of the tension release and flow out or your muscles. Exhale as you release the tension and relax. You should feel the muscles become loose and limp. Focus on the difference between the tension and relaxation as this is the most important part of the exercise.
More On How To Stop Panic Attacks:
How to Stop A Panic Attack: 7 Steps
What To Do In A Panic Attack: 4 Great Ways to Cope
Panic Attacks In Children - How To Help Your Child
For more information: Please purchase my book “Attacking Panic: The Power to Be Calm” for more in depth information on how to stop panic attacks quickly and how to treat the root cause (Amygdala/Sympathetic Nervous System). The book shows you how to go beyond just giving up control and allowing yourself to experience a panic attack. The book has more powerful strategies that will short-circuit your fight or flight system, stop a panic attack very quickly, and even prevent a panic attack from occurring.