What to do if someone is having a panic attack

November 27th 2020

Panic attacks are becoming more and more common so do you know what to do if you find someone having one?

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When someone has a panic attack it can be equally stressful for the person watching it, especially if they don’t know what to do.  So here are three things you can do to help that person – and some of them may feel very counter-intuitive to you!!

1. Don't assume they want your help!

You may want to go in and hug that person, talk to them but before you do any of that, ask them if they want help.

Many people withdraw as part of their coping mechanism.  They can often feel embarrassed or uncomfortable and the last thing they want is someone hovering over them – even if that person’s intentions are positive.

Most people will be able to communicate with you – even if that is non verbally with a thumbs up etc.  And if they indicate they want to be left alone, then move away – but don’t go away!

Stay within a respectful distance but keep your eye on them.  Monitor the person to ensure that their symptoms are starting to reduce after about 10 minutes.  If they continue to be struggling after 10 minutes or the symptoms are increasing, it is time to start considering that this is not a panic attack but something physical.

2. Be relaxed yourself

Now I accept that this is easier said than done.  However, the person’s mind is in a high state of stress and thus if you are stressed too, it will acknowledge there is something to be stressed about and your stress can escalate things.  To help, them do all you can to communicate non verbally that all is OK.

This includes things like keeping your body language open and relaxed, talking in a quiet natural manner, managing your own breathing to keep it slow and calm.  All of these things are going to be being picked up by the person’s subconscious and help it start to accept there is not a sabre toothed tiger around!

3. Avoid telling them they are being silly or irrational

Whilst to you this might be true, it is likely to add to their stress.  Their mind is not in a state where rational thought is possible.   If you do feel you need to talk (or the person has invited you to engage with them), use words such as, “It will pass,” speaking in a calm, controlled voice.

and once their symptoms have reduced....

When the panic attack has finished, the person is likely to feel very tired as the fight or flight mode consumes a huge amount of energy.

If the person is someone you love, this is time for cuddles.  If it is a colleague or even a stranger, offer companionship.  This is still not the time for talking.

That will come when their minds are back in ‘normal’ mode.  This may be an hour or so later, or even the next day depending on the severity of the panic attack.  Then you can start talking about triggers, their coping mechanisms etc.

For more information including triggers, symptoms and facts around panic attacks, along with more details about the three techniques above, please watch the video you can find here.

Caroline Cavanagh is an anxiety specialist  and hypnotherapist in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  She is an author and public speaker and would love to talk to you if you would like to know more about her work.

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