Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting over 40 million American adults. This misfiring fear response can range from mild—little more than an unpleasant inconvenience—to a debilitating condition that significantly affects a person’s quality of life. One of the most severe manifestations of anxiety is panic attacks. They can be terrifying to experience but can also be alarming to witness. If you find yourself in this situation, here’s how to help someone having a panic attack.
5 Ways To Help Someone Having a Panic Attack
These symptoms of a panic disorder are characterized by rapid onsets of irrational fear or stress coupled with an impending feeling of doom or dread as well as physiological side effects including racing heartbeat, fast breathing, tremors, clamminess, and sweating. They can come on suddenly and without warning making it difficult to predict when one might occur. As such, being prepared about how to ground someone having a panic attack is often a much more practical endeavor than trying to recognize the signs of an upcoming one.
First and foremost, to be of any help at all, you’ll need to remain calm yourself. Adding to the chaos will only further someone deeper into their panic attack. Regardless of how you might actually feel, try to appear collected and confident. You’ll at least appear to have control of the situation, which is precisely what someone having a panic attack needs during these moments.
Stay Reassuring and Supportive
Once you’ve composed yourself, focus on providing verbal reassurance in a soft and soothing tone. Your goal is to keep them in the present and prevent them from sliding further into their panic. However, this does not mean shaming or minimizing their panic attack by trying to explain why there’s no reason for them to be so agitated. Anxiety and panic attacks are mental illnesses, they defy rational thinking and are outside of the person’s control.
The correct way to be supportive is to instead focus on the temporal nature of what they’re feeling, telling them that it will pass, and otherwise making them feel more in control.
Try Breathing Exercises
Science has proven that focusing on the breath can improve our physiological and mental state. In addition to being a helpful way to slow their racing heartbeat and breathing, breathing exercises have the added benefit of giving the person something else to focus on rather than just their fear. This can be difficult to do even during the best of times on one’s own, so verbally cue them on deep inhales and exhales.
Use the 3-3-3 Rule
The 3-3-3 rule is a well-known technique for managing and reducing anxiety. Ask the person you’re trying to help to identify:
- Three sights
- Three sounds
- Three feelings (by moving different parts of their body)
This encourages individuals to engage their senses to bring them back to the present, rather than worrying about what might happen next. This sensory check-in can also help reinforce the reality that they are safe and free of danger.
Although panic attacks are fairly short and may only last around 5-10 minutes, dealing with one up close can sometimes feel like your words are falling on deaf ears and that there’s no end in sight. Remember: mental illness is not rational. You cannot expect logic or other reasoning to resolve a panic attack. The best anyone can do is to allow it to run its course while mitigating its effects and, hopefully, shortening the duration of the episode.
Part of being patient means understanding that the struggling individual might find your presence more a hamper than help. Be sensitive to their requests for space if they find it easier to come down from a panic attack on their own.
What Causes Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are the result of an overactive stress response known as panic disorder. What triggers particular side effects isn’t always predictable or rational and may occur without any apparent cause. Science has yet to identify the specific cause behind panic attacks, but genetics, mental health, and external stressors are the biggest contributors.
This disorder affects around 2% of the American population, sadly, many of those who are afflicted do not realize that they have a mental illness or are too embarrassed to speak with others about their episodes. There’s no need to suffer in silence, alone. Panic attacks are psychological disorders that can be manageable with treatment. Find a mental health provider near you, today.