How to Help Someone Who's Having a Panic Attack

If you see a friend or loved one having a panic attack, there are things you should do -- and things you shouldn't do.

Things You Should Do

Stay calm. Don’t let the situation overrun you. Your low-key behavior can be a model for your friend and let them know everything's OK.

Stick around. The best thing you can do to help with a panic attack is to stay and help your friend ride it out. Most panic attacks ease up in 20 to 30 minutes.

Do your best to be understanding, positive, and encouraging. Ask what the cause of your friend's panic is. That can let them take a step back and think about the situation more rationally.

You could ask:

  • How many times have you gone through this?
  • What did you think was going to happen?
  • What actually happened?

Questions like this will let friends or loved ones see for themselves their worst fears won't happen. It can also remind them of times they’ve come through panic attacks.

Helping someone get through one of these will be a learning experience for them. Riding out a panic attack can make the next one less traumatic. It may even make it less likely to happen at all.

Encourage your friend or loved one to seek help. You can:

  • Help them find a licensed professional.
  • Search reputable online spots that offer support.
  • Recommend some self-help books.

If the panic attacks have a big impact on your friend's work or home life, it’s especially important that they get help from a trained professional.

Panic disorder is one of the most treatable mental health issues. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a therapist search function on its website that can help folks find someone who can help.

Options for treatment include:

Exposure therapy: Your friend will relive, or confront what makes them panic -- in a controlled environment. They'll learn -- slowly -- how to deal with those feelings.

Cognitive therapy (CBT): This teaches different ways of thinking, so the response to the fearful situation will change.

Learning more about panic attacks can help you become a supportive friend or loved one. You’ll have a better understanding the next time you’re there during a panic attack.

If it’s a family member or partner who's having panic attacks, more and more mental health professionals recommend couples or family-centered treatment.

In general, be patient and accepting.

Continued

Things You Shouldn't Do

Don’t try to minimize it. Understand that the panic you see is real to your friend, even if the cause may not appear rational to you.

Don’t be judgmental or critical. Blaming someone for a panic attack doesn’t help. Don’t try to talk them out of it, either.

If you know what causes your friend's attacks, don’t help them avoid the situation. Escape now could be harmful later. It could make the anxiety worse and raise the odds for more attacks. They may also become reliant on you to shield them from their fears.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on October 19, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Simon A. Rego, chief psychologist, Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Reid Wilson, PhD, Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center, Chapel Hill, NC.

University of Michigan Health Service: “Anxiety Disorders and Panic Attacks.”

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Spouse and Partner,” “Helping Your Anxious Teen Cope with a Panic Attack.”

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