How to help someone experiencing anxiety or panic attack


A panic attack is a challenging experience for the person having one and their loved ones. Here are 9 ways you can help someone.

Anxiety and Panic Attack: Helping Someone During Such Situations

Panic attacks are brief moments of intense fear that trigger intense physical and emotional reactions even when there isn’t any danger. They can be terrifying, and someone might feel like they are totally losing control.

A person having a panic attack may sometimes think they are having a heart attack or even dying.

This article provides 9 tips on what to do and what not to do when someone has a panic attack and advice on how online therapy can help.

What Are Panic and Anxiety Attacks?

Panic attacks are often confused with anxiety attacks. The two have some similar characteristics, but they also have some major differences.  

A major one is that panic attacks are a greater intensity than anxiety attacks. Then, panic attacks are sudden and random, while an anxiety attack will often have a trigger.

Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: The Differences

After an episode of a panic attack or an anxiety attack, people still feel some worry, stress, and other intense emotions and feelings for up to a day.

However, there are major differences that distinguish the two experiences. They include:

  • Panic attack symptoms are disruptive and intense, but anxiety attacks vary in intensity
  • Panic attacks are sudden, while anxiety attack symptoms are gradual in manifestation
  • Panic attacks subside after some minutes, but anxiety attack symptoms take longer to go away
  • Panic attack episodes can occur multiple in a row, unlike during an anxiety attack
  • Also, panic attacks are accompanied by fear of dying and losing control and derealization.

Symptoms of Panic Attack

Panic attack symptoms “mimic” those experiences when facing a threat. When someone is experiencing a panic attack, they feel they are in danger, even when there is none in reality.

They have symptoms such as:

  • great fear
  • sensing doom of feeling like they will die
  • chills or sweating
  • shaking
  • depersonalization and detachment to their surroundings
  • a rapidly pounding heart
  • tingling
  • difficulty breathing
  • pain in the head or chest

Symptoms Associated with Anxiety Attack

An anxiety attack is a period of extreme worry, fear, and distress that other physical symptoms often accompany.

The physical symptoms include:

  • heart palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • chills
  • numbness or tingling
  • headaches and chest pain
  • nausea
  • restlessness
  • sleep disruption
  • dizziness

Anxiety attacks are not clinically recognized according to the DSM-5, which means that their symptoms are open for interpretation.

However, the above symptoms are the most common.

What Are the Causes of Anxiety and Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks occur unexpectedly for the most part. However, some episodes are in response to triggers, just like with anxiety attacks.

Here are some common triggers:

  • Stress at work
  • Social stress
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Phobias
  • Chronic pain
  • Relationship issues
  • Memories of traumatic experiences
  • Financial stress
  • Worries about presentations or exams
  • Grief

Anxiety is a normal emotion and understandable when there are life changes that might induce it. However, what to watch out for is when normal worries in your day-to-day life cause an anxiety attack.

How to Help Someone Experiencing a Panic or Anxiety Attack

Panic attacks can be confusing since they are sudden. When a person is near someone having one, they often don’t know what to do.

So, here are some tips on what to do when someone is having an anxiety attack or panic attack.

Stay Calm

It might be frightening, but do not escalate the situation any further by panicking near the person. Keeping a cool head can be a model for the person to emulate and believe that everything is okay.

Panic attacks generally do not last long and will often peak in about 10 minutes.

However, the person experiencing it might not be aware of how long they have been in that situation. They can sometimes even think that they are dying.

Stick Around

When a friend has a panic or anxiety attack, you should stay with them and help them ride it out. Usually, it won’t take long.

However, they might not want you there. If someone having a panic attack asks you to back off, give them their space.

Ask How to Help

You want to know how to help someone with anxiety or panic attack? Ask them. A lot of people who have undergone anxiety attacks before developed coping mechanisms.

While being supportive in the situation, remember they know best what works for them. Ask calmly and be prepared for a short response.

However, sometimes, people experiencing anxiety or panic attack might find communication difficult at the moment.

If you know someone who sometimes has panic attacks, ask them how you can help if they experience one in your presence. You should also not take their responses personally in that situation and always try to stay neutral.

Understand the Warning Signs

Panic attacks are different depending on the person, but they often have similar symptoms at the start. They include feeling terror, hyperventilation, fast pounding heart, shaking, and dizziness.

When you take note of these symptoms early, you can react faster and help the person.

Prioritize Actions and Watch Your Words

Some people experiencing an anxiety attack respond to being soothed with a familiar voice. However, it would be best if you watched what you say to them too.

You might mean well, but some words might not be helpful at that moment. For example, you can’t keep saying, “don’t worry,” because you might be unknowingly invalidating what is happening to them.

Are you wondering what to say to someone with an anxiety attack? Here are things you can tell them:

  • I’m here for you
  • What can I do to help?
  • Remind them to keep breathing

Also, take action with your words by asking the person if they want to go elsewhere. You can even engage them in some light conversation unless they ask you not to talk.

Understand That the Person’s Panic May Be Confusing

During panic attacks, someone might be terrified even when there is no immediate danger. It can occur when they are stressed or even when they are calm, for example, while sleeping.

There is always the temptation to tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of. However, they might also know that, but their body is telling them otherwise.

It is what makes the experiences so confusing for everyone involved.

Accept Their Experience

People who experience panic attacks often find it difficult to share their experiences. Some keep these kinds of problems hidden because they fear people won’t understand what they are going through.

You might find their fear illogical, but the victim genuinely can’t control it. So, be empathic and tell them something like, “I’m sorry you go through that. Tell me what to do to help or support you.”

Help Them Stay Grounded

Applying various grounding techniques can help to maintain anxiety or panic attack symptoms. The methods aim to shift the focus of the person to things that are actually happening.

Grounding techniques are most useful once the attack has reduced in intensity.

Here is how to help someone with anxiety stay grounded:

  • Light physical touch, for example, hand-holding, if they allow you to
  • Hand them an object to feel its texture, nothing sharp
  • Help them repeat a phrase that soothes them
  • Calmly talk to them about familiar things, places, and activities

Respect Their Requests/Needs

Ask the person experiencing anxiety attack what they need and respect their requests. It might be some space or maybe some quiet. Even if it is a glass of water, get it for them.

After panic attacks, the person tends to feel calm but exhausted. Thus, they might not be in a position to follow through with some of the plans you might have made with them.

Do not ask for too much from someone who has had an anxiety or panic attack because it disrupts the recovery process. You might think that a fun activity might cheer them up, but they will often want to relax.

Pressuring them to go somewhere or do something might just let the stress response linger.

Things to Avoid Doing When Someone Has a Panic Attack

If someone has a panic attack in front of you, there are things you should not say to them. Some of them might seem harmless but might make the situation worse unintentionally.

Here’s what not to do when someone has a panic attack:

  • Telling them to calm down or relax
  • Saying there’s no reason to be afraid
  • Telling them that they’re embarrassing themselves
  • Saying they’re overreacting

When you are unsure of what to say, stay by their side silently until the attack subsides. You can hold their hand to support them.

Encourage Them to Seek Professional Help

When someone has a panic attack in your presence, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. You need to recommend it with full support and make sure it does not come out as criticism or judgment.

For example, you can tell them to try online therapy at Calmerry, where they will be matched with licensed and experienced therapists to support them. It’s one of the most convenient ways to get professional help.

Help improve the health of those you love by caring for them and seeking the best mental health support!

Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from
Pepperdine University and has been working in healthcare since 2017. She
mainly treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, grief, identity,
relationship, and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience is focused on
individual and group counseling.

Follow Kate here