Panic attacks can be scary for both the person panicking, and for the friend of the panicker. But what you, as the friend of the panicker, need to have in mind is: they are way more scared than you, and they need you to bring them back to reality. Below describes what panic attacks are, what causes a panic attack, and how to help a friend through a panic attack.
What does a panic attack look like?
The person panicking might be shaking or twitching, hyperventilating (or just not breathing well at all), unable to speak, have a stomach ache, and possibly screaming or crying. Sometimes, they might be in a hunched over position (sitting or standing), with hands at their head, heart and chest, or stomach.
What causes a panic attack?
Some call it an anxiety attack, others call it a panic attack. They can last a few minutes or hours, and they can reoccur multiple times in a month, week or day. Sometimes panic attacks are caused by a buildup of stress, or because they encountered a trigger point (a word, smell, person, place etc. that reminds them of a bad memory or of a prior panic attack), or occur randomly.
8 Ways to Help a Friend Through a Panic Attack
In person, or through text or call.
All of the below methods are things that my friends and family have tried on myself during my panic attacks, or techniques I’ve done for my friends during their panic attacks that worked. I hope they help you, and if you have any other ways to add, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add them to the list <333.
1. Have them focus on your thumb and direct their breath.
Ask them to inhale as you move your thumb up toward the sky, and to exhale as you move your thumb down. You’ll have to match their pace at first, and then gradually slow it down. It may take a bit to get their eyes to lock in on your thumb, so keep reminding them to focus. Continue until their breath is even.
2. Reassure them.
Let them know that though they might be feeling that everything is not okay, remind them that you are here, they are safe and they aren’t alone. Remind them of what’s happening in the present moment, in their surroundings, and who they are (their name, occupation, school, passions etc.) to ground them. Sometimes humor helps with this too like, “The zombie apocalypse isn’t here yet, I promise!” (If humor isn’t your forte please don’t force it k cool ty xox).
3. Circular back rubbing.
If they are okay with being touched, this can calm their nerves.
4. Humor them and or talk about your day.
Depending on the severity of their attack, sometimes all they need is to be humored! You can tell them a ridiculous story about how your dog pooped in your room. If you hear a giggle, keep talking because it’s working. Talking about your day distracts them from their panic attack, and also brings them back to reality.
5. Give loving, but strict instructions.
Give them something to do so they can reset. Most of the time the person will be in a very protective, curled up position, or lying down completely stiff. Both are extremely hard positions to breathe in, so tell them to get up and get water, or watch their favorite TV show, or do some jumping jacks. Tell them to call you back when they’re done.
6. Describe a beautiful scene to take their mind to another place.
I usually describe a warm beach, how their toes would feel in the sand while looking at mellow waves coming in toward the shore, and slowly melting back toward the sunset. The imagery of the movement of the waves tends to help relax their muscles and connect their breathing with the waves.
7. Deep inhale, long exhale.
Lead them into a deep inhale, pause at the top of your breath, and then aim to release the exhale double the length of the inhale.
8. Hand on each other’s hearts.
If they are okay with physical touch, place your hand on their heart, and their hand on your heart. They’ll naturally focus on their hand on your chest, and will begin to mimic your smooth, even breath and heartbeat.
Tip: If you’re with the panicker, and they’re panicking in a public place, TAKE THEM OUT OF THE PLACE!! (If possible that is…sometimes they really can’t move). Help them walk, and take them somewhere private to calm them with these eight options.
3 Ways to Help a Friend Post Panic Attack
After they’ve calmed down, and can talk normally, offer them water and ask,”Would you like to talk about it? Or would you like to talk about or do something else?”
1. If they choose to talk about their panic attack…
Let them talk without interrupting. Don’t offer advice unless they ask.
2. If they choose to talk about something else…
Talk about something humorous or lighthearted.
3. If they choose to do something else…
Give them options. “Would you like to eat some food? Watch a movie? Take a walk?”
All of the options I suggested above to help a friend through a panic attack are trial and error. A lot of times the panicker knows exactly how they’d like to be helped. So after they are calm and have been focused on something else for awhile, ask how they would’ve preferred to have been helped.
DO NOT DO ANY OF THE FOLLOWING EVER OKAY COOL XOXOX
All those are a given…I hope….Stay calm. Their brain is off in another universe of darkness, so you have to think for two!
You don’t want to get them used to your embrace and affection during a panic attack. What if you are not around? They will crave your touch as the only solution to end their misery. Also, a hug could potentially worsen the attack since it suppresses their chest and may be even harder for them to breathe. (And they’re already having difficulty breathing so….don’t add to it!)
Panic attacks engrain thoughts like “I’m alone. No one has misery like me.” If you say you understand their situation, that might throw an alarm in their body. Every human being is different, so no one can fully understand anyone’s situation. And for the opposite, what they are feeling is real and scary, so for you to invalidate
their feels will cause more panic.
Firstly, asking questions provokes MORE negative thought cycles, triggering more panic. Secondly, they’re panicking! They can’t function, so they can’t answer your questions.
THEY are panicking. Not you. So don’t make the situation about you! Also, there could be a million and one reasons why they are panicking. This means, even though a word you said or an argument you two were having might have been the last trigger for the volcano to erupt, you are not to blame for them panicking.
This article was originally published on February 13, 2016 in our print “The Strange is Beautiful Alternative Self-Help Guide.”
Sending you positive vibes,
The Strange is Beautiful
Shannen Roberts is the Peruvian-American, founding editor-in-chief of The Strange is Beautiful, musician and yogi.
Learn more about her here.