4 Things You Shouldn’t Say To Someone Having A Panic Attack

Panic attacks send adrenaline all over your body. When I have one, my heart races and my hands shake like someone’s doing brain surgery on me while I’m awake. The rest of my body might shiver or tremble with little seizures. My arms sometimes feel numb. It feels like someone replaced my heart with a thrumming hammer — and not a cool one handled by Chris Hemsworth, a really sh-tty one that might explode in my chest robot! Dick Cheney-style.

Since I can’t control when and where they’ll occur, I’ve had everyone from my brother (helpful!) to a random airline stewardess (not so helpful!) try to assist me when I’m panicking. Trying to help someone through a panic attack is really hard. I imagine seeing someone overcome with anxiety makes other people feel helpless and afraid. Should you rub their back? Should you sing to them? Should you call 911? It must be super difficult to know what to say. Here’s some hints about what you shouldn’t say to someone if you’re with them during a panic attack.

1. “You have nothing to be panicked about.”

We know. We know. We know. And because we know we have nothing to be panicked about, we panic even more. When I realize that my anxiety is unfounded, I panic even more because then I feel like I’m not in touch with reality. Scary.

Most of the time, a panic attack is irrational. Sometimes they stem from circumstances — a certain couch triggers a bad memory or being on an airplane makes you claustrophobic or a break up causes you to flip your lid — but mostly, the reasons I’m panicking are complex, hard to articulate or simply, unknown. I could tell myself all day that I have no reason to be having a panic attack and I would still be panicking. Sometimes, because I’m a perfectionist, I become even more overwhelmed when I think my behavior is “unacceptable” (as I often believe it is when I’m panicking). I know it’s all in my mind, but my mind can be a pretty dark and scary place when it gets going.

Alternate suggestion: Say, “I understand you’re upset. It is okay. You have a right to be upset and I am here to help.”

2. “Calm down.”

This reminds me of a MadTV sketch where Bob Newhart plays a therapist who tells his patients to simply “Stop it!” whenever they express anxiety or fear. As a sketch, it’s funny. In real life, it’s one of the worst things you can do to someone having a panic attack. When someone tells me to “stop panicking” or to “calm down,” I just think, “Oh, okay. I haven’t tried that one. Hold on, let me get out a pen and paper and jot that down, you jerk.”

One time, when I was having a particularly bad panic attack on an airplane, the stewardess came over and sharply told me that if I didn’t stop panicking, the plane would not be able to take off. On the one hand, she was right and I was a liability in the air. On the other hand, I then began panicking about how I was holding up the rest of the passengers. Her insensitivity worsened my condition. Instead of taking action so that they do relax, simply telling a panicking person to “calm down” or “stop it” does nothing.

Alternate suggestion: The best thing to do is to listen and support. In order to calm them down without the generalities, counting helps. My brother sometimes has me chant a mantra — doesn’t matter what the words are. The repetition is comforting.

3. “I’m just going to leave you alone for a minute.”

Being left alone while panicking makes my heart race even harder. The last thing I want is to be left by myself with my troubled brain. Many of my panic attacks spark from over-thinking and it’s helpful to have another person with me, not only for medical reasons (in case I pass out or need water) but also it’s helpful to have another person around to force me to think about something other than the noise in my head.

Alternate suggestion: It sometimes helps me if the person I’m with distracts me by telling me a story or sings to me. I need to get out of my own head and think about something other than my own panic.

4. “You’re overreacting.”

Here’s the thing: I’m not. Panic attacks might be in my head, but I’m in actual physical pain. If you’d cut open your leg, no one would be telling you you’re overreacting. It’s a common trope in mental health to diminish the feelings or experience of someone suffering from anxiety or panic because there’s no visible physical ailment and because there’s no discernible reason for the person to be having such a strong fear reaction.

The worst thing you can tell someone who is panicking is that they are overreacting.

Alternate suggestion: Treat a panic attack like any other medical emergency. Listen to what the person is telling you. Get them water if they need it. It helps me if someone rubs my back a little. If you’re in over your head, don’t hesitate to call 911. But please, take the person seriously. Mental health deserves the same respect as physical health. TC Mark


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  • http://twitter.com/rob_t_firefly Rob Vincent (@rob_t_firefly)

    “Have you guys ever had a panic attack? … For those of you who’ve never had one before, imagine being fucked in the heart. That’s kind of what it’s like.”

    – Chris Hardwick, Nerdist

  • Stina Marie

    Thank God someone said it.

    I’m sick of people that act like mental health problems ‘don’t exist’.
    I’m sorry, but they do.

  • http://studyrepellent.com rich

    Why is every article on thought catalog in list form? I’m not criticizing this one specifically, I’m just pointing it out.

    • rstizzle

      I actually really liked the article, and am now feeling guilty for the negative comment. Do what you want: list, story, picture, video… write it on a napkin with ketchup. It doesn’t matter if the content is this good.

      That is all.

      • oliveroars

        I nearly murdered you.

      • A L D

        People like reading lists.
        I don’t know why, we just do.

    • http://naive-ly.tumblr.com queenofindie

      I think it makes it easier to process the information; placing it into organized sections makes it easy to read just the parts you care about. Also breaks things up a bit so it’s easier on the eyes. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/tashiehrstichbull Natasha Joyce Catherine Hrstich-Bull

    Brilliant! I tried explaining why I had a panic attack the other day and was told I was just ‘mental’. This is going to become compulsory reading for my office.

  • http://www.itmakesmestronger.com/2012/06/4-things-you-shouldn%e2%80%99t-say-to-someone-having-a-panic-attack/ Only L<3Ve @ ItMakesMeStronger.com

    […] Thought Catalog » Life Add a comment […]

  • me

    Really wonderful advice. I also suffer from panic attacks and it makes them even worse when the people around me don’t know how to help.

  • Carol

    Excellent article. Everyone is different though. I can’t cope with people talking to me during an attack, I zone out and can’t hear them properly and this makes me panic more. I also find it difficult to speak or move during an attack so I find it almost impossible to verbalise to let people know I’m having one. As someone who’s suffered from them for 15 years I feel very strongly that awareness should be raised about the seriousness of the condition. Thank you for this article.

    • Drashka

      Agreed, I can’t stand people asking me questions (even when they are trying to help)…I like to be alone or with someone close to me but silent.

      • http://twitter.com/rickileek richard lee (@rickileek)

        god yes, i prefer to be left alone when it happens. even the most well-meaning comments are unwelcome, just chill for a bit til i am done.

  • Marina

    My boyfriend suffers from frequent panic attacks, and what helps him most is when I give him a big hug, tell him to breath evenly, and remind him that he is okay and the weird things he is feeling (numbness, etc) is not going to last forever and is not because someone drugged his food. I talk to him calmly and sit with him until he calms down and it passes. Now, pretty much the first thing he does when he gets a panic attack is come to me for a hug and he says that it really helps because it’s really difficult to talk himself out of it on his own. It feels good knowing that I can be that for him, I can’t imagine what it feels like to go through what he does every time.

  • Martha

    First of all! I agree with all of these things but the reason you keep having panic attacks is because you are not going to the root of the problem. The first panic attack is in fact out of the blue. All the other panic attacks are just because you are scared of something that reminds you of the first panic attack. You should probably see a psychologist. For someone who is dealing with panic attacks right now I learned that you do not have to get them and even if you do get them after learning how to properly deal with them they do not have the same effect on you as the first one. It is so scary to have a panic attack and the weeks after the first panic attack are miserable but things get better. You just need to seek professional help and not try to overcome them by yourself. When you know a panic attack is coming you have to start breathing by using your belly. After I start breathing by using my belly I do not even get a full blown one. Its really up to you to change your panic attacks. The more you learn, accept and expose yourself to the things that trigger your panic attacks the less panic attacks you get. You should also count on yourself to let the panic attack pass. I used to have to carry xanax with me or a bottle of water all the time. Now I know that I am in control and if a panic attack comes knocking on my door I will be able to stop it. If we change our thoughts, we change our feelings, leading to a different positive outcome instead of worry. People who get panic attacks are usually worries and have some kind of OCD. Its also great to have a support system when you are going through a hard time.

  • H

    Re #3: I don’t want to be anywhere near anyone having a panic attack. Sorry that I’m not sorry.

    • http://miriammogilevsky.wordpress.com Miriam

      Wow. You could at least try not to be a dick about it.

      • Rose

        I think people are allowed to “be dicks” about their *own mental health*. Like, panic attacks can be a terrifying, painful experience, and to tell a person to be nicer and sweeter when talking about having to go through that painful experience … I find that an obnoxious suggestion.

  • Tara

    I tell a silly joke and laughing helps me out of a panic attack. My current one: Why didn’t the lifeguard save the hippie? Because he was too far out :)

  • Carlota

    The best way to make a panic attack go away is to embrace the person or if you are alone to embrace/hug yourself. When the body is under pressure (physically, with a hug in this case) the nervous system contracts and relaxes. I’ve been having panic attacks since long time ago, I’ve reached professional help and I’m all better now after a lot of work, but the hugging was and still is the best medicine… doesn’t matter if you are alone, hug yourself and imagine your nervous system calming down. You’ll see immediate results, faster than any “chill pill”.

    • Sara H

      Yes. Physical contact also focuses your mind on the touch rather than the panic. When you sense touch and nerves send signals to the brain, your mind automatically has to take a bit of focus off your troubles to process the sense. It’s like a distraction that your brain is physically unable to ignore.

    • a james

      it’s highly dependant on the person, though. I was about to make a new comment on ‘leaving alone v. giving space’. Some people DON’T like to be touched and some people might feel more panicked about being made “vulnerable” by relaxing. When I have attacks, people start to freak me out. I tend to run far away from people until I find some place cool, quite, alone, and sheltered before I can begin trying to ease out of the attack.
      Someone, even someone I know, hugging me would just impede this and make me freak out, I can get violent like that [which I usually get scared of. e.g. “I’m going to kill/hurt everyone” panicked thoughts]–so just making things worst. If I’m like, in a place I don’t know well, or about to run into traffic, or otherwise letting me run away would be imminently dangerous, I guess it’s justifiable. But for some of us, physical touch could be the last thing we want people doing to “help” us.

  • A

    Mental health issues, like physical health issues are real and need to be taken seriously. If a diabetic was having an attack we would rush to get them their insulin, we wouldn’t tell them to calm down or that everything was going to be OK. All forms of mental health issues need therapy not platitudes or “frothy emotional appeals”. Thank you for writing this piece and discussing it. There may not be a cure but there are solutions.

    • Joakim


  • Joakim

    quite similarly, anyone with depression is always told to just think positive thoughts, or things will be fine, or that there are people who have it worse than me. People think they are helping.. it never helps and makes one sink even further down.

  • http://twitter.com/okay_wecan RICOCHET (@okay_wecan)

    when my friend has a panic attack, the first thing that always comes out of my mouth is, “it’s okay, everything’s gonna be fine, don’t worry about it”
    i’m assuming this is bad & that i need to be a better friend then? this is my instinctive phrase though :

    • Jenny

      ask your friend if it helps, would be my guess. that’s always the best. they generally know what they need if it happens often.

    • Sara H

      There’s a difference between saying “I understand why you’re upset, but everything’s going to be okay” and “There’s no reason to be upset because everything’s going to be okay.” It’s not the positive part that gets to people; it’s the part that implies that they’re being irrational or voluntarily doing something wrong that people with a panic attack don’t want to hear.

  • shatha_h

    True, whenever i witness my friends going through a panic attack it feels like watching domino pieces falling one after the other, you cant stop it, you have to leave it until it reaches the last piece.

    if for any reason i tried to interrupt this flow, a sudden shock or an aggressive reaction is always one of the results of that.

  • Auntie M

    How did you get inside my head like that? And my body! Thank you for this. Anxiety is so real and so frightening. Another reaction that doesn’t help is when someone just stares at me like I’ve crossed a forbidden boundary. So, okay, not only am I crazy, but this feeling is NEVER going away. I like the mantra thing, and I do try to breathe

    • http://www.facebook.com/joshua.dunn3 Joshua Dunn

      Thank you Gaby
      Your brother and sister in law love

  • http://chatterchit.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/2242/ Introspection of the vacuous drivel
  • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com sonofwalt

    This is some excellent succinct advice that perhaps my friends and family could easily follow. Would it be too forward to post it on the fridge as required reading? :)

  • http://twitter.com/vickstahs Vicky Nguyen (@vickstahs)

    i loved this so much. whenever i am having an anxiety attack, there is always that one dismissive, annoyed person who further escalates my anxiety by saying something extremely unhelpful and insensitive. think i might just staple this article on their forehead the next time they give me grief.

  • http://www.senior1938voice-mylife.com Nicasio Martinez

    One night I woke up, the light from the 1/2 bath partially open door, backlighted my wife’s body frame. I sensed something was wrong. What’s wrong I asked? I’m having a panic attack. No wonder she ended our twenty years relationship– I had no idea what to say, do, or how support her. Her several therapists made no effort to educate me. The one thing I was told by one of her caregivers when I asked why 18 years into our marriage she was having panic attacks, the reply was; “You have made her feel comfortable enough to deal with her issues.” Those issues went back to her childhood and she had been concealing her suffering all those years.

    Thanks for this sharing, maybe one day the knowledge will be useful– now.

  • http://understandingmygift.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/when-i-finally-told-my-spouse/ When I Finally Told My Spouse… | My Panic Attacks Were A Gift In Disguise

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  • Sarah

    I had someone tell my to “stop having your anxiety attack, it’s so selfish.” Yes, I woke up this morning thinking, “HEY I’M GOING TO RUIN EVERYONE’S DAY INCLUDING MY OWN HAVING AN ANXIETY ATTACK! Since when has an anxiety attack been perceived as selfish?

  • http://anexerciseindiscipline.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/healing-slow/ Healing slow | 20 LINES A DAY – an exercise in discipline

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  • a james

    AS I said above, I’d like to add-on to #3–some people need space. There is a difference between leaving someone alone and giving them space. For lots of ppl, crowds can make them panic, feeling like you can’t escape and or that something bad will happen because of/to all the people around you, and panicked fleeing can be the means of looking for escape. The most helpful thing here is to act as a guide, but not crowd the panicked person, get them some place quiet and empty and let them have space to be alone without actually /leaving/ them.
    Also, it might go without saying, but if you see or know someone who’s having a panic attack and they have someone helping them, keeping back and keeping others back is more useful than being the Nth person to get in their space going “are you okay? it’s okay! you’ll be alright. what do you need?” because that can be overwhelming…

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