How To Help A Friend Through A Panic Attack

Photographed by: Alexandra Gallivet.
If you've ever suffered from a panic attack, you know how debilitating they can be. But if you haven't experienced one yourself (or even if you have, actually), watching someone else go through it can feel like one of those dreams in which you have the key to a mysterious door, but you still can't open it.

"A panic attack is like a test of the emergency alarm system in the body. There’s no emergency, but the alarm goes off on its own," explains Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. "Your body is reacting as if you're being confronted by a tiger, but there's no tiger."

As a bystander, your first instinct is probably to remind the person to simply relax. But it's basically impossible to do so when your friend or loved one is involuntarily experiencing such a sudden and extreme burst of anxiety for no apparent reason, along with physical symptoms such as blurred vision, sweating, heart palpitations, and light-headedness.

In other words, even if you recognize that a friend is in crisis and you know that they will be okay (Good to know: Panic attacks don't have any long-term physical effects), those words mean very little in the situation. So, what are you supposed to do?

Of course, if your friend is having recurrent panic attacks, it might be best to recommend seeing a doctor. But in the meantime, we've outlined what to do — and what not to do — to help a friend get through a panic attack and feel better.

If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.
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Know what a panic attack can look like.

While panic attacks can manifest in different ways among different people, there are some telltale signs that someone might be having one.

As Dr. Chansky says, someone who's having a panic attack might seem frozen with a look of fear or dread on their face. They might also be telling you, "we need to go" in order to leave the situation that's triggering their anxiety.

They may also suddenly become very quiet, stop answering you, or begin to sweat and tense.

"A first reaction can be that people are suffering in silence, and they feel frozen with fear," Dr. Chansky says. "They don’t think they can tell anyone what’s happening because they don’t know what’s happening."

If your friend has never had a panic attack before, and she has symptoms such as chest pain, blurred vision, trouble breathing, get to the emergency room, stat. While these can definitely be panic-attack symptoms, they can also be symptoms of other serious health issues, such as heart attack or stroke. These things are much, much more rare in young women, but especially if there's no history of panic attacks, seeking help is a good idea to rule these more dangerous things out for sure.
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Don't ask, "What's wrong?"

First things first: Don't ask them, "What's wrong?" In fact, try not to ask any open-ended questions that require more than a yes/no answer.

"Nothing is wrong, and the more you ask, the more it spirals the anxiety for both of you," Dr. Chansky says.

Think about it: If you're going through a crisis and having difficulty managing it, you likely wouldn't respond well to having to explain yourself.

You may mean well in trying to find out exactly what's happening to try to help them, but Dr. Chansky points out that questions can make your friend's attack even worse.

"Questions are uncertain, and when there's uncertainty we just feel more anxious," she says.
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Tell your friend to name three objects.

Instead, you can ask your friend if they can name three objects or sounds around them. This tactic will distract them from the panic attack while giving them time to calm down.

"Getting your focus off your panic symptoms and focusing on other things lets your body know that you’re in the clear," Dr. Chansky says. "Because if you were really in danger, you would only be able to focus on that one danger."

This method might not switch off their panic right away, but it may help the symptoms slowly fade away.
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Talk them through it.

Rather than open-ended questions, try to calmly talk them through it by reassuring them that they're not in danger.

Dr. Chansky recommends affirming statements such as:

“I’m with you."
"We know what this is. It’s a false alarm."
"Your body is preparing a fight, but there isn’t one."

Statements like this, said with care and love, can help them focus on the safety net around them and calm their symptoms.
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Help them with breathing exercises.

If you're going through a panic attack, you may also be experiencing shortness of breath and heart palpitations. It can also be hard to remember to catch your breath.

The National Health Service recommends breathing exercises specifically for anxiety: Take deep breaths through your nose and out through your mouth for three to five minutes. Try to inhale for five seconds and then exhale for five, but it’s okay if you can’t get to five counts at first.

Just like naming three objects, breathing exercises will give your friend something to do to take their mind off their panic symptoms or whatever might be triggering their anxiety.
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Give them time, if they need it.

For this one, you have to use your judgment. Sometimes panic attacks can be triggered by something specific in the environment you're in, perhaps a big crowd or anything that may be specific to traumatic memories. In those cases, the best idea may be to get your friend out of there to a place she can feel safer, stat.

Other times, though, panic attacks are completely random. In those cases, you don't want to rush to leave the restaurant or theater necessarily. Instead it may be more important to standby and just give your friend support so she can recover first. "Give them 15 minutes to go to the bathroom and splash water on their face or talk themselves down," Dr. Chansky says.

Also, again, people experience panic attacks in different ways, and while some may really want you to stay with them, others may really need you to leave them alone by leaving the room, letting them go to the bathroom by themselves, etc., so they can get through it.
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