Helping Through a Panic Attack

Panic attacks can happen to the best of us. Here’s how to make one easier for someone to get through.

Camryn Marshall, Columnist

According to Merriam-Webster, panic attacks are defined as a sudden feeling of disabling worry; however, they can be much more than just a worrisome mood. The American Psychological Association projects panic attacks as becoming increasingly common among teenagers due to the stress and apprehension of everyday life, yet most people do not know how to properly handle a situation in which someone is undergoing an attack. These attacks can be sudden and usually involve hyperventilation, crying, and complete dissociation from reality. There are three steps which can be taken to support a peer having a panic attack to put the individual and situation at ease: calming them down, offering emotional support, and asking what they need.

Panic attacks are often caused by overwhelming feelings of worry, stress, and anxiety over thoughts in which the individual cannot avoid or change, leading to an extreme amount of unwanted fear. The first reaction to a panic attack should be simply trying to calm the individual to a sensible level. Helping them to breathe evenly and clearing their mind can allow them to reorganize their thoughts and realize they’re okay. However, reacting to the attack with yelling or immediately asking what the problem is will only add to the anxiety and could enhance their worry. Knowing that the victim is obviously overwhelmed can help by ensuring you are adding to their stress as little as possible and can help through focusing them on breathing and distractions. An example of a distraction would be focusing on the five senses: have them find five things they can see, four they can touch, three they can hear, two they can smell, and one they can taste.

After the individual has calmed down, stopped crying, or stopped hyperventilating, offer emotional support. Always ask them if they are willing to discuss what is on their mind instead of insisting they must openly discuss their feelings. By asking if they are comfortable with sharing, it gives them a sense of comfort rather than adding on to their painful emotional thought process. Through this, continue to reinforce calm breathing and make sure to listen. This is not the appropriate time to insert your opinions or personal experiences. By attempting to relate to their emotions, it will not only make them feel incompetent, but reinforce negative comparisons of experiences and feelings between you and the person you are helping. Listening, nodding your head, and reassuring them that they are not overreacting can allow them to express their true emotions as best as they can, without feeling like they are being judged. Often, anxiety builds fear for nonexistent reasons, so asking why they’re anxious will not only leave them frustrated, but also build up more tension in their mind. Keep the questions simple, natural, and open-ended.

Lastly, if the situation seems stable and the individual is calm, ask what they need from you. This can be as simple as a hug, but could also be asking for help from a guidance counselor. Making sure you can offer them whatever help is needed is the best way to make them feel safe. However, try not to offer suggestions of what they “should” do or what you “would” do. Inputting your opinion may not allow them to get what they need, how they need it. Reassurance that you are there for them and that they will get help is the best advice you can offer and the most truthful. Don’t promise anything that you cannot offer or you are not sure of. For instance, by saying, “you will get better,” “it’s going to be okay,” or “don’t worry,” you’re making promises that you might not be able to keep. The truth is, they may not get better and there is nothing you in the moment can do about that.

Panic attacks can affect anyone going through a stressful time and need to be addressed in an appropriate manner. Having the right attitude and knowledge when faced with this situation can help build the confidence needed to help a friend when undergoing an attack.