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April 23, 2022

Helping Someone Through a Panic Attack – What You Need to Know

Heart racing. Shallow breathing. Hyperventilation. Physical pain. These are just a few physical symptoms of a panic attack. Then there’s the dread, the worry, the true panic at not being able to control the situation. Has this ever happened to you?

If it has, you understand what to say to someone having a panic attack. You also might know how to help someone breathe during a panic attack because often they lose their breath and have a hard time getting it back. 

If you’ve never experienced one, know that panic attacks are scary for the person having one. It doesn’t matter whether it’s happened once or multiple times. Panic attacks cause and are caused by intense fear.

Some people are prone to panic attacks, especially if they have high anxiety and/or an anxiety or panic disorder. Some people don’t know that they’re having a panic attack. It can be hard helping someone through a panic attack if you don’t know what to do. So let’s demystify this a bit, shall we?

how to help someone breathe during a panic attack

Helping Someone Through a Panic Attack

Panic attacks are usually brief but full of fear for the person having it. Some symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Intense fear
  • Sense of doom
  • Sweating or chills
  • Shaking
  • Racing heart
  • Trouble breathing
  • Head and/or chest pain

One of these symptoms alone is scary enough, but imagine the fear that is associated with having a panic attack. If you get them, you never know when they’re going to strike because the triggers aren’t always clear. People who get them may live in constant fear that one will come on at an inopportune moment.

So if you’re with someone who gets panic attacks, how can you help them? Helping someone through a panic attack is challenging if you’ve never experienced one. One of the most important things to do when you’re with someone who is having a panic attack is to remain calm. The last thing they need is for you to start panicking.

If you have a loved one who gets panic attacks, educate yourself about them. Talk to your loved one about what is helpful for them when a panic attack hits and what you can do to help. Everyone has their own way of coping with anxiety and panic attacks, so don’t be afraid to ask when they’re not in the middle of having one. 

When your loved one is in the middle of having a panic attack, calmly ask them what they need. It may be hard to communicate what they need at that moment, so it’s a good idea to talk about the experience and what helps when they’re not having a panic attack.

They may want you to leave or back away. Don’t take it personally. Panic attacks are personal, scary experiences that not everyone understands. The more you listen to your loved one, the better you’ll be able to help them. If they want you to leave, let them know that you’ll be nearby and will come back if they want you to.

How to Help Someone Breathe During a Panic Attack

Hyperventilation is a common occurrence during a panic attack. It can be hard for someone to get their breathing under control. Here are a few ways to learn how to help someone breathe during a panic attack.

When someone is having a panic attack their nervous system is completely dysregulated. Because panic attacks are a response to a perceived threat, the person having one can go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. When that happens, their parasympathetic nervous system needs to be tended to. This is the part of the central nervous system that calms the body down when it’s in fight, flight, or freeze mode.

Slowing down your loved one’s breathing is one way to get them out of the panic stage and back into their body. If they’re ok with it, work towards slower breathing. Count inhales and exhales, making the exhale longer than the inhale. This is a cue to your parasympathetic nervous system to calm down.

There are other ways to focus on their breath. You can try square breathing, which is when you inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, and then hold at the bottom for a count of 4. You could also try imagery, such as pictures waves rolling into the shore on the inhale and leaving the shore on the exhale.

While they’re working on their breathing, you can use whatever is in your immediate surroundings to help ground them. Prompt them to identify a few things they see, what they can hear, smell, taste, and touch. Using the senses can be very grounding and will ultimately help get their breathing under control. Learning how to help someone breathe during a panic attack will help that person a lot at that moment.

what to say to someone having a panic attack

What to Say to Someone Having a Panic Attack

When someone is in the middle of a panic attack they might be afraid of how their experience affects the people around them. It’s hard to know what to say to someone having a panic attack. The first thing to do is to let them know that you’re not going anywhere. Remind them that this won’t last forever. Panic attacks tend to be short, so the key is weathering the storm with them. It’s also important and helpful to remind them that they are safe.

When learning what to say to someone having a panic attack, try to avoid telling them not to worry or that everything’s going to be ok. They might find it hard to believe during the attack and it just might not be helpful. 

You can use your words to help your loved one by asking if they want to go somewhere else, reminding them to keep breathing, and trying to engage in a light conversation (unless they don’t want to talk).

Steer clear of telling them that there’s nothing to be worried or scared about. They probably already know that they’re not actually in immediate danger, so that wouldn’t be helpful. Be empathetic. You could say something like “this seems really tough and I’m sorry you’re going through it. Let me know how I can support you.”

Knowing what to say to someone having a panic attack is hard and there isn’t necessarily one right answer. This is why it’s important to talk with your loved one when they’re not having a panic attack to discover what they find helpful and also what doesn’t serve them.

Look, panic attacks suck. They suck for the person having them as well as the person supporting them. But there are things you can do to help. You can’t make them go away, but often your presence and help can reduce the amount of time the panic attack lasts and help your loved one not feel alone.

Therapy Can Help You and Your Loved One Learn About Helping Someone Through a Panic Attack

Still not sure what to say to someone having a panic attack? Consider attending therapy with your loved one – I can help you work through your challenges and come up with goal-setting strategies to know what to say to someone having a panic attack.

During our work together, you’ll learn how to be there for your loved one. We’ll come up with coping skills to deal with panic attacks and help you step confidently into the world knowing what you’re dealing with and how you can manage it.

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials manage their anxiety so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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