How to Help Yourself (or Someone Else) Through a Panic Attack
Panic attacks are really scary - and feeling like you’re losing control of your body and mind in front of others can feel mortifying in the moment.
Panic attacks feel like in a split second, your heart is going to jump out of your chest or go into overdrive and fail. You can feel like your chest is tight and it can be hard to breathe. With your heart pumping fast and your breathing constricted, you can get lightheaded - but rather than rationalizing with yourself, your anxiety tells you you’re about to pass out, have a heart attack, or that something horrible is about to happen.
These are very uncomfortable things to feel - and personally, experiencing these feelings in front of others has always felt really embarrassing to me. When it happens, I fall into a familiar old cycle of telling myself that I “shouldn’t” be experiencing this panic and that I “should” be feeling a-okay in the moment. All of these shaming thoughts make anxiety roll like a tumbleweed in a windstorm, building up fear of the “what ifs” and clouding up an already anxious mind.
But - it doesn’t have to.
Anxiety is more common that people realize - mostly because, those of us experiencing it don’t always feel comfortable opening up about it.
Your friends, family, and loved ones want to help you - but if they’ve never experienced anxiety before, they may not know what to say or do.
If you’re experiencing anxiety or a panic attack - here are a few ways you can help yourself and some advice to share with those around you so they can help you through it.
How You Can Help Yourself When You’re Having a Panic Attack:
Let someone you trust know you’re experiencing some anxiety. Sometimes the fear of how others will react can cause anxiety in itself - so putting it out there can stop the fear of wondering if they’re noticing a change in your behavior. More often than not, others don’t realize when you’re having a panic attack - and keying someone in will allow you to -
Ask for what you need because you deserve to feel okay in this moment. Need a few minutes to breathe in silence? Someone to hold your hand? Give you space? Tell a distracting story? Leave the room? Again, you deserve to feel okay and you deserve to take whatever time you need.
Remind yourself: you’ve gotten through this before and you’ll get through it again. I used to keep this saying on a note card in my wallet and carry it with me everywhere I went. Because we don’t always think clearly in the moment, it helps to have a reminder that you ARE going to be okay.
Give yourself a break. Often times when we’re experiencing anxiety, we are so dang hard on ourselves. Speak to yourself the way you would speak to a friend. Remind yourself that your dizziness, racing heart, and any other panic symptoms are a result of anxiety.
Acknowledge the anxiety. I know - this may sounds counterintuitive - but just like trying to ignore an elephant in a room - ignoring these feelings can supersize them. When we acknowledge that we’re having anxiety, it reminds our brain that these feelings are temporary and that they’ll pass.
Count your breathing. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for a count, and exhale to 5 counts. Focusing on your breathe in this way will slow a racing heart, bring more oxygen to your brain, and help bring you mental peace & clarity so that you can come down from the panic. Continue breathing this way for as long as you need.
How You Can Help When Someone Else is Having a Panic Attack:
Do not respond with “I don’t know what to do right now.” …even if you don’t. I know it may feel uncomfortable for you, but the level of discomfort the person experiencing a panic attack is feeling is tenfold the level that you’re feeling. It gives them something else to worry about, and in addition to their current panic attack, they’re now worrying about how to make you feel less uncomfortable which can feed into the panic.
DO ask them what they need. If “how can I help you right now?” leads to a stressed, “I don’t know” - trying asking them an either / or question. “Would it help if I told you a distracting story or do you need some silence right now?” Everyone responds differently, and asking what they need can help you be the most supportive in the way that they need.
And offer them what they need in the moment. It may be a hand to hold, someone to leave the room / situation with, a few minutes of silence. Do they need words of support? Remind them that it’s ok to experience anxiety. That they’ve gotten through this before and that they’ll get through it again. Do they need a distraction? Tell them whatever funny story comes to your mind - or make one up. Do they need silence? You may feel uncomfortable sitting in that silence - but I can promise the volume is on full blast in their head and sometimes they need some silence to sort out all the noise.
Let them know you’ll be there as long as they need. Often times when someone is experiencing a panic attack, they feel anxious that the panic attack isn’t going to end soon enough to accommodate those that are around them - we feel guilt and shame and this builds on the anxiety. Letting someone know “we can sit here as long as you need” without pressuring them for time can help ease their panic.
Gently remind them to count their breath. I say “gently”, because there have been times where I’ve been experiencing panic and when someone says “remember to breathe”, my anxiety-driven mind feels misunderstand, rushed to recover, and retorts with, “No shit! Don’t you think I know that? I’m trying!” Offering up a softer and more constructive approach, such as, “Can you try inhaling to a count of 4 and exhaling to a count of 4? It might help you get through this.” can help them feel as though you’re genuinely trying to help (which you are) and can give them something tangible to focus on.
Let them know it’s okay to experience anxiety. Once the panic attack has subsided (usually within a few minutes), many people feel extremely embarrassed about the fact that someone else was there to witness it. Remind them that everyone experiences stress - and everyone experiences it in different ways. Let them know you love them (if it’s appropriate), ask again what they need from you [for the remainder of the day / evening / event], and emphasize that it’s okay to feel how they’re feeling. Feel free to check in on them after some time - and then move on with the day to help things return to a feeling of normalcy for them.
If you’ve experienced panic attacks before, talking through these questions (i.e; what is most helpful to you when you’re experiencing anxiety?) with your friends, family, loved ones, or co-workers can help set you up for support should you experience a panic attack in the future.
Know someone who experiences anxiety and panic attacks? Walk through these questions with them. Ask them how you can help and you’ll feel more prepared to support them in a moment when they need it most.