How to help someone having a panic attack
Ask if they need helpBefore you try to do anything, introduce yourself and ask them if they want your help. They may have a few methods that help them calm down. Or, they may be experiencing their first panic attack and need assistance. Until you ask, you won't know. And even if you know the person, ask permission anyway. You want to be supportive, not unintentionally create more stress.
Assess for a possible heart attackSymptoms for a heart attack and a panic attack can appear similar. After you've introduced yourself and asked if they want help, ask if they've ever had a panic attack before. If they have and believe this may be another one, chances are low it is a medical emergency. Panic attacks are not life-threatening. But if there's any uncertainty, UNC Health states that it's better to err on the side of caution and call 911.
If it seems the person is coping with a panic attack, the remaining suggestions can help you support the person until they calm down.
Remain calmIt's easy to get caught up in someone else's emotions without realizing it. Check the way you're speaking and moving to make sure you appear steady and calm. Speak slowly, use short sentences, and keep your body language relaxed. Take a deep breath to get into the right mindset and physical stance.
Encourage deep breathingOnce you have their permission to help, encourage deep breathing. Deep breathing does two important things for your body. First, it brings in more oxygen to help your brain think more clearly. Second, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your central nervous system responsible for calming and slowing your body's activity. This is a simple behavior that doesn't require much thought and can get around a person's intense emotional state.
Suggest moving to a quiet placeIf you can, help them move to a private or quiet location. Depending on where they have their attack, you may not completely get out of the public eye. But lowering the stimulation around them can help. They are already feeling confused and upset, so even a small improvement may help. Some people feel embarrassed about people seeing them in distress, so more privacy can help them calm down.
Help them get groundedHelping a person focus on one single object can help them shut out everything else around them. This may also distract them from their feelings of anxiety. When a person becomes more grounded in the present moment, they can step out of the confusing cloud of emotions. Give them something with a soft texture or a cooler temperature to help them focus and feel comforted.
Consider taking a walkThe movement and rhythm of a walk can help a person feel grounded. Also, walking or exercise increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain and triggers the release of hormones called endorphins. These hormones are associated with positive mood and feelings of well-being. Walking may also help them move away from the environment that triggered their attack.
Be accepting of their emotional stateWhen someone is experiencing a panic attack, accept that they are highly anxious and confused. Be patient and understanding about their emotional state, and avoid trying to talk them out of their anxiety. It's much more effective to acknowledge their panic and help them calm their physical and emotional symptoms first. There is a time and place for logical thought about the situation, and the middle of a panic attack is not that time.
Remind them that their feelings will passIn the moment, a person may feel like their panic is choking them to death. They may have no idea how they're going to recover, and the passing minutes can feel like hours. Reassure them that you are going to stay with them and that their feelings will pass. Your calm and confident demeanor can help them relax.
After the panic attack is overIf you're still with them when they've calmed down, they may be exhausted. Help them decide what their next step is. If they need to go home and rest or see their counselor, be there to assist as they sort out their options.
Helping someone having a panic attackPanic attacks can be scary, especially for the first time. It's best to call 911 if you think it may be a heart attack, but a panic attack is not life-threatening. If you're in a position to support someone experiencing panic, be a steady and calm presence until they feel grounded.
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18 April, 2021