What not to do when someone is having a panic attack (A guide)

What not to do when someone is having a panic attack

In this blog post, we discuss what not to do when someone is having a panic attack, and what is actually recommended to do if we witness a panic attack. 

What not to do when someone is having a panic attack (A guide)

What not to do when someone is having a panic attack

Anxiety is an emotion that we all experience at some point in our lives. Anxiety can manifest as an intense fear and the feeling that something bad is going to happen.

The easiest way that comes to mind when we want to help someone suffering from anxiety is to tell them to calm down and enjoy the simple things. In reality, however, these encouragements may exacerbate their current state because the person will feel pressure to feel differently than they may feel at that moment.

The World Health Organization has announced that one in three adults suffer from at least one depressive-anxiety episode in their lifetime, which means that many of us either know what we are talking about or know someone affected.

And if you want to help and not make a mistake by saying exactly what is not right in the middle of a panic attack, here’s what you should not do or say when someone is having a panic attack: 

Panic attacks are scary. If you are with someone who is having a panic attack or has just gone through a panic attack, it is important to consider the following and what NOT to do:

  • Do not ask them a lot of questions. They probably know as much as you do at that exact moment
  • Do not agree with the negative things they are saying during the attack. If you do this, it will probably make them feel worse.
  • Don’t tell them to calm down or relax – they would if they could. Having a panic attack is not a choice. 
  • Too much concern can also worsen the situation, and amplify fear. Avoid using expressions such as “Poor of you” or “Dear, look at what is happening to you, let’s call the ambulance!”.
  • Do not denigrate the person with comments such as “Stop, what are you child?” or “Come on, end the nonsense.”
  • Don’t tell them they have nothing to be worried about – this is not how anxiety works.
  • Don’t start shouting, crying and don’t act upset – this will worsen the situation.

Although they are extremely unpleasant, panic attacks are usually harmless and usually last between five and 20 minutes.

What not to do when someone is having a panic attack (A guide)

How you can help when someone is having a panic attack

A panic attack is an unexpected and intense episode of fear and extreme anxiety. In most cases, it starts suddenly, without warning and without an obvious reason. 

Symptoms include, but are not limited to, palpitations, increased heart rate, rapid breathing or suffocation, headache, dizziness, tremor, sweating, difficulty swallowing, and dry mouth. In some cases, these symptoms may be accompanied by fear of death or fear of going insane or losing control.

How can you help a person suffering from a panic attack

  • Try to find out what triggered the attack

Try to find out if the fear was caused by a specific reason. If it exists, try to remove it or remove the person from the source of stress and lead them to a quieter place.

  • Calm the person

Talk to the person suffering from the panic attack quietly but firmly. Try to convince them to stay put and calm down.

  • Help them regain their normal breathing rhythm

Once the person has managed to regain a normal breathing rhythm, it will be easier for them to get rid off the other symptoms of the panic attack. 

  • Don’t leave the person alone

Never leave a person suffering from a panic attack alone. It is best to stay with them until they are fully recovered, to ensure that no emergency medical care is needed.

How do we help children and teenagers that are having a panic attack

For young children, physical contact with a trusted person significantly decreases stress levels. Thus, with a soothing voice, show him a toy he likes, a musical instrument, distract him from the symptoms. Swing the child in your arms, massage his hands or feet, smile at him, communicate with him.

In the case of a teenager or adult, tell them to close their eyes and focus on a pleasant, soothing image, to try to control their breathing by inhaling and exhaling deeply. Breath control calms and harmonizes emotions, mind and physiological reactions. 

If the adult or teen is good at yoga and meditation, tell them to practice some techniques; if he knows a few more special dance steps, ask him to show you. And, if possible, go for  a walk outdoors.

What not to do when someone is having a panic attack (A guide)

Things you can say to a person who is suffering from anxiety to help them

The key to helping a person who is going through a state of anxiety is not to judge them by how they think or feel. If we really want to help someone who is suffering from anxiety the first thing we need to do is to ask ourselves if we can be supportive in a way that would allow the person to feel safe, so that they can share with us what they feel or experience. 

Fear is something we all experience. I’m sorry you’re going through this.” If we say this, we have already made ourselves understood, we have already expressed our supportive and non-judgmental attitude.

The main messages that a person suffering from anxiety needs to receive from us, our loved ones, are:

  • I’m sorry you’re going through something like this
  • It is not your fault
  • It must be hard for you
  • Please tell me how to help you” 

Sometimes just your calming presence can be more than enough. The person may feel better if they know they are in a quiet and confident environment. 

What lies behind a panic attack?

Panic attacks are signs that something is going wrong, that we abuse ourselves and others, they show us where we still have to work with ourselves, what we lack, what attachments we have, what ideals and muffled aspirations.

Often, behind these unconscious fears lies the lack of self-love, manifested by: culinary excesses, lack of sleep, mental or emotional exhaustion, childhood traumas, family misunderstandings, stifled and repetitive suffering, disappointments, expectations for the other to fulfil our desires.

Fear is a gift. It signals to us, as in the case of the symptoms of a panic attack, a potential danger. In this case, the danger is our unresolved inner conflicts, past and present.

Healing can begin with the practice of self-love and finding resources through affirmations, meditations, exercises and role-playing games, drawing, or dance therapy. 

Of course, at first, the psyche tends to resist changes and we may be tempted to give up. Therefore, perseverance and involvement are essential. 

What not to do when someone is having a panic attack (A guide)

Conclusions

In this blog post, we discussed what not to do when someone is having a panic attack, and what is actually recommended to do if we witness a panic attack. 

It is important to remember that we need to keep calm ourselves and help the person experiencing a panic attack to regain their normal breathing rhythm. 

There are also a few words and techniques that may help them calm down and cope with the aftermath of a panic attack. 

Please feel free to leave any questions or comments you may have!

FAQ on what not to do when someone is having a panic attack

What should you not do when someone is having a panic attack?

When someone is having a panic attack you should not cry, ask them to stop or leave them alone. It is important to maintain calm yourself, as panic attacks are not a death threat and usually don’t last more than 20 minutes.

How do you calm someone down from a panic attack?

If you want to calm someone down from a panic attack you want to speak them with a calm and soothing voice. Ask them what you can do to help ease their pain, help them regain their breathing rhythm, stay with them until they feel better. 

What to do if a friend has a panic attack?

If a friend has a panic attack the most important thing you can do is remain calm yourself. This will help your friend realize that they are not actually in any danger and that this too shall pass. Ask your friend to count slowly all round objects/green objects in the room. This will help them focus and regain their balance. 

Can anybody have a panic attack?

Generally, yes, anybody can have a panic attack. The causes of panic attacks are not clearly highlighted, but they are a symptom of panic disorder and usually more frequent with persons suffering from anxiety disorders. 

Can you die from a panic attack?

You cannot die from a panic attack, although they feel extremely frightening and life-ending. A person experiencing a panic attack would commonly feel they are going to lose control/their mind

What do you say to someone who is having a panic attack?

You have to say encouraging words to someone having a panic attack, such as: “You will get through this,” “This is temporary,” “You will feel better in a while.”

Further reading

  1. Anxiety: Panicking about Panic: A powerful, self-help guide for those suffering from an Anxiety or Panic Disorder
  2. When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life
  3. Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks Fast
  4. The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Workbook for Panic Attacks 
  5. Badass Ways to End Anxiety & Stop Panic Attacks!: A counterintuitive approach to recover and regain control of your life 
  6. Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick

References 

When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life – David D. Burns M.D. 

Answers to Your Questions About Panic Disorder – APA

What not to do when someone is having a panic attack (A guide)

Nadejda Romanciuc

Nadejda Romanciuc holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a diploma in Addiction studies. She is part of the Romanian Association of Integrative Psychotherapy as a psychotherapist under supervision. She's practicing online counselling for over two years and is a strong advocate for mental health.