I’m not a healthcare professional, but I am a mental health advocate, and I live with panic, anxiety, and depression. From conversations with my friends, to my own experiences, to facilitating conversations with large groups of diverse youth and adults about mental health, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge on the do’s and don’ts of caring for someone who’s having a panic attack.
While no one wants to have a panic attack, anyone who suffers from them knows that each person’s attacks are different. The tools that work for one person may not work for another.
Someone having a panic attack may show physical symptoms like sweating, difficulty breathing, hot flashes, numbness, and/or nausea. Their heart will race. They may be having thoughts like, “This is the end of the world, there’s no way out, I’m worthless, and the walls are closing in on me.”
Reading this means you care enough to have a range of tools in your back pocket in case you need to use them for someone experiencing a state of panic, whether it’s someone you care about or even a total stranger.
Here are 10 simple things you can do for someone having a panic attack.
1. Tell them you care.
Tell them they are loved. Tell them to think of one person that they will survive this for. Tell them they can talk to you. Whatever it is you say, it’s incredibly helpful for many people in a state of panic to hear that you care.
2. Bring them a glass of water.
Preferably cold water. Leave it nearby or hold it. When they’re ready, they can sip it slowly to hydrate and help them cool down.
3. Be there.
This simple action can speak volumes. Don’t feel pressured to “fix” this person or what’s happening to them — just be there and tell them that you are.
4. Ask them what they need or what you can do.
Someone having a panic attack may have experienced this before. They may be able to tell you exactly what will help them in that moment. Keep in mind that they may not have an immediate response. They may have no response at all. In that case, perhaps there’s a more useful item on this list to revert to.
5. Don’t be judgmental.
Mental health is plagued with stigma. Oftentimes, we don’t know how to think or talk about it. When someone is having a panic attack, telling them what you think, why you think this is happening, or having any opinion at all on how you perceive this situation can be harmful. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
6. Don’t offer advice.
7. Use breathing and grounding techniques.
This is one of the most useful tools, I’ve found. You can help them take deep breaths by inhaling and exhaling slowly with them or practice grounding. Grounding can help them perceive reality and come down from panic. Ask them for five things they see, hear, smell, and can feel in that moment.
8. Use simple sentences.
“You’re going to get through this,” “This feels scary, but it isn’t dangerous,” and “What can I do?” are just some examples. Try to keep your language grounded and simple to help reduce their stress. Reassure them. Support them.
9. Call a distress line.
If you are at a complete loss, look up distress lines in your area. There is likely a 24/7 line you can call, let them know what’s happening, and they can offer suggestions and help from there. Better yet, look up distress lines in your area now and save them in your phone just in case. Be sure to ask the person experiencing the attack if it’s okay for you to do this.
10. Connect them to resources.
Panic attacks are very scary, but there are resources we can access to help cope with them. If this person is not already connected to help, maybe it’s time to find a therapist, encourage them to talk to their family doctor, or start practicing meditation. Different care plans work for different people, and they might need your support to explore options. Be sure to wait until the attack has passed before you try this tool.