4 Things to Not Say During a Panic Attack

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Panic attacks are characterized by a combination of mental, emotional, and physical symptoms. These attacks typically begin with a sense of dread, nervousness, and fear. Feelings of anxiety often increase in intensity as the person begins to experience sensations such as:

These uncomfortable physical symptoms are frequently met with fearful thoughts and emotions, such as being afraid that the attack will cause one to lose control, go insane, have a medical emergency, or even possibly die. During a panic attack, it is not uncommon for a person to go through feelings of depersonalization and derealization in which they feels detached from the self and reality.

People who have panic attacks often have no control over when their symptoms will strike. For people with panic disorder, these attacks come on suddenly, without any warning or cause. Those with specific phobias may only have panic attacks when exposed to their specific fear; however, these feared stimuli may not always be easy to avoid.

Given that attacks can occur at any place or time, some people may try to jump in and help the person through the panic attacks. It is truly kind for someone to try and help a person through these challenging symptoms. However, well-meaning friends, family, and even strangers may try their best to help, only to say the wrong thing to the person having the attack.

If you or a loved one are struggling with panic attacks, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Read ahead for some ideas on what not to say to someone during a panic attack.

Just Calm Down

If told to calm down, a person having a panic attack may feel as though you are suggesting that they have complete control over their symptoms. If a person could simply calm down and stop having a panic attack, they would.

You may think you are helping to redirect the person by telling him to calm down. In reality, it can just cause them to be more aware and self-conscious of their symptoms.

Instead of being verbally directive, try to get the person to calm down using one of the many strategies to get through panic attacks. Some helpful strategies include relaxation techniques such as:

By utilizing such techniques, you will be able to redirect the person while making them feel secure and understood.

You Have No Reason to Be Nervous

Most likely, the person who is having the panic attack is aware that there is no reason to be anxious. When going through a panic attack, a person’s fight-or-flight stress response is triggered, making their mind and body prepare for an actual or perceived threat.

Even if they are not in any real danger, they still may not be able to stop the attack from running its course. Reinforcing that the person’s fear is unfounded can increase one’s sense of anxiety.

Instead of bringing the lack of threat to their attention, try being a voice of encouragement. Use a soothing voice and simply remind them that you are there for them.

You’re Embarrassing Yourself

This just comes across as a truly insensitive comment. Many people already feel embarrassed about having to manage a panic attack in public, so there is no need to bring this to the person’s awareness.

Instead of further shaming the person, try affirming their strength. Let them know that you are there to be supportive and that they have no reason to feel shame. They may already feel humiliated, so it can be most helpful to remain positive.

Try phrases such as:

  • “I am here for you”
  • “You’re doing a great job”
  • “You will get through this”

Using supportive statements can all go a long way in helping a person having a panic attack to feel more confident at such a vulnerable time.

You’re Overreacting

These few words can be tremendously discouraging for a person facing a panic attack. It can be hard enough to have to deal with uncomfortable symptoms, but even more challenging when others are minimizing their experience.

Panic attacks are a real set of symptoms and should not be confused with emotional reactions that are within one’s control. People with anxiety often perceive these attacks as frightening, and by telling the person that they are overreacting, you may make it harder for them to calm down.

You will get better results if you try to put the person at ease. Some things that you can do that may help include:

  • Going outside where they can get some fresh air
  • Helping them find a quiet area
  • Staying inside where they may feel less distracted and more secure
  • Taking them to a spot away from other people

If you feel uncertain of what to say or if you are feeling a little frightened yourself, try silently staying by their side as the panic attack subsides.

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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Panic disorder: when fear overwhelms. Updated 2016.

  2. Mendoza L, Navines R, Crippa JA, et al. Depersonalization and personality in panic disorder. Compr Psychiatry. 2011;52(4):413-9. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2010.09.002