How to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack

A step-by-step guide to help someone through a panic attack

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Signs that someone is having a panic attack include:

  • Expressions of intense fear
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain

The person may hyperventilate, shake, or feel as if they are dying. Panic attacks can be frightening, but there are ways that you can help a person who is having one.

If you suspect that someone is having a panic attack, here are some steps you can take to help them through it.

How to Know When Someone Is Having a Panic Attack

It is essential to recognize when someone is having a panic attack. Some of the signs and symptoms you might observe include:

In addition to the outward, visible signs, the individual also experiences extreme fear or an overwhelming sense of dread. It is not uncommon for someone to mistake these symptoms for a heart attack or another medical problem.

One 2017 study found that more than 1.2 million people visit the emergency room each year due to anxiety symptoms.

However, it is essential to remember that each person's experience differs. If someone you know has experienced panic attacks in the past or has been diagnosed with panic disorder, it can be helpful to talk to them about what to watch for and what type of symptoms they usually have.

It can also be helpful to identify what is happening. The person having a panic attack may not understand what is happening, particularly if they have never experienced one before. Gently explain that you think they are having a panic attack, that they are safe, and that it will be over soon.

When to Seek Help

You should seek medical assistance if you are not sure if the individual's symptoms are caused by a panic attack or a medical condition. Medical conditions that may cause symptoms similar to a panic attack include:

  • Asthma
  • Cardiovascular conditions
  • Diabetes
  • Hyperthyroidism

Consider the Cause of the Panic Attack

Knowing more about a person’s condition and what types of stimuli or situations can set off a panic attack can also be helpful. Panic attacks can be triggered by a number of things, including stress, unfamiliar environments, and feared situations. 

People who have recurrent panic attacks may have a condition called panic disorder, but people without anxiety disorders can experience panic attacks as well. In some cases, factors like excessive caffeine intake, illness, and intense exercise can trigger a panic attack.

In many cases, there is likely little you can do to change the situation. Understanding what may have triggered the attack may help the individual learn to recognize patterns or situations that tend to precede such attacks.

Panic attacks don’t always have a clear source. They often strike suddenly and without an apparent cause. While it can be helpful to be aware of triggers that might have played a role, your primary concern should be supporting the person until the attack is over.

Stay Calm

Try to stay as calm as possible. While the other person may be panicking, you can help by remaining steady.

This might sound easier than it is in practice. It is easy to feel anxious and uneasy yourself when someone else is so clearly distressed. It is a good idea to utilize some fast-acting strategies to ease your mind and body in such moments.

Take a few deep, calming breaths and focus on grounding yourself at the moment. If you feel like you are unable to remain calm, consider asking someone else for assistance.

Panic attacks are typically relatively brief, with most lasting between 5 and 10 minutes. While it seems like much longer when it is happening, particularly to the person that is experiencing it, the best thing you can do is project a sense of calm and comfort.

If They Request Silence

If the person having the panic attack asks you to stay quiet, you should do as they request. But if they haven't asked for silence, then you might calmly reassure them that you are there, let them know that they are safe, and remind them that it will be over soon.

Stay With Them

Don’t leave the other person alone during the panic attack. Staying with them as a comforting, familiar presence may help the individual cope with the feelings of fear and anxiety they are experiencing.

If they ask you for space, stay nearby so that you can offer assurance or assistance if needed. 

In some cases, you might need to help them move to a different location during a panic attack. Gently guide them to a quiet place and stay with them until the panic attack is over.

Avoid Adding Pressure

Avoiding doing things that will exacerbate the pressure or fear that the person having the panic attack is experiencing. For example, if they are panicking about performing an activity like public speaking, don’t add pressure by telling them they need to calm down within a certain amount of time.

Don't get into long-winded explanations or ask a lot of questions. Instead, make short, simple statements.

What You Can Say

During a panic attack, you might say:

  • "Tell me how I can help."
  • "You are safe."
  • "Focus on your breathing."
  • "You will get through this."

Ask How You Can Help

Ask the person having a panic attack if there is anything that you can do to help. In some cases, they might be able to tell you, but it is important to remember that they are not thinking clearly. They might not feel able to respond, or they might respond with frustration or anger

It is difficult for someone to communicate while they are panicking. Pay attention to body language, gestures, and nonverbal responses to your questions or suggestions.

Don’t take it personally if your friend is curt or if they don’t respond logically.

Help Ground Them

Grounding is a relaxation technique that can combat feelings of panic by helping people focus on their senses.

Have Them Try the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Exercise

In the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, ask the individual to focus on:

  • Five things they can see
  • Four things they can touch
  • Three things they can hear
  • Two things they can smell
  • One thing they can taste

Encourage Deep, Calming Breaths

During a panic attack, people often engage in rapid, shallow breathing that makes anxiety and fear worse. Remind them to take slow, steady breaths.

You might gently talk them through the process, instructing them to take a slow, deep breath in through the nose as you count to five. Then, tell them to exhale slowly out through their mouth as you count to five. 

Research suggests that breath control can play an important role in inducing feelings of calm and combatting anxiety.

Offer Them Cold Water

Sipping water can sometimes help people calm down. In addition to giving them something to focus on, it can relieve physical symptoms of dry mouth or dehydration that might trigger or worsen feelings of panic. 

Some people find that a cold compress or even immersing their hands in cold water can help relieve feelings of anxiety and panic. The technique has recently made the rounds on social media as a way to short-circuit the anxiety response.

Why Cold Water Helps

Cold water is believed to help because it activates the body's parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system is the branch of the nervous system that calms the body down after stressful events. Activating this system may help induce greater feelings of calm.  

A few studies have explored the potential benefits of cold water immersion as a tool to combat anxiety, and have found that it may have positive effects on mood and well-being.However, more research is needed.

Until then, stick with encouraging the persom to sip some cold water, apply a cool cloth to their forehead, or dip their hand in a glass of ice water

Don’t Dismiss Them

Panic attacks can be both confusing and frightening. The other person’s fear may not make sense to you, but you should never dismiss, minimize, or invalidate what they are feeling. Their fear is very real and it is important to validate their emotions.

Avoid making invalidating comments like:

  • "Just snap out of it."
  • "It's fine."
  • "There's nothing to be afraid of."
  • "What is wrong with you?"
  • "That's silly!"
  • “Just calm down.”

Invalidating comments can make the other person feel ashamed or embarrassed of their reaction. Instead, continue to reinforce that you are there for them, they are safe, and that the attack will be over soon.

Discourage Avoidance Behaviors

While you might be tempted to distract the other person from what is happening, it is best to let them deal with the feelings of fear and anxiety instead of trying to avoid them.

Avoidance behaviors, which involve engaging in safety behaviors designed to avoid feelings of anxiety, tend to make anxiety worse over time.

Panic attacks can cause people to avoid situations that may trigger feelings of anxiety. Such avoidance can play a part in the development of agoraphobia, a condition in which people are unable to leave their homes due to fear of having a panic attack.

Dealing with the fear, facing it, and learning that it is tolerable is a better choice. While it is difficult, the other person will emerge understanding that panic attacks, while frightening, are not dangerous.

What to Do
  • Stay calm

  • Stay with them

  • Help them stay grounded in the present

  • Ask them what they need

What to Avoid
  • Don't shame them

  • Don't minimize or dismiss what's happening

  • Don't offer substances

  • Don't encourage safety behaviors

A Word From Verywell

Seeing someone experience a panic attack can be confusing and stressful. After supporting them through the attack, it is essential to make sure that you take care of yourself as well. Take some time to regroup, relax, and recharge your mind and body. 

You may also consider encouraging the person to talk to a mental health professional. Offer to help them find a therapist and support them in sticking to their treatment plan. While there is no way to completely eliminate the risk of having a panic attack, effective anxiety treatments are available that can reduce the frequency and severity of these attacks.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.