Do's and Don'ts of Helping a Loved One Through a Panic Attack

Last week I discussed what you can do to overcome a panic attack. Not much can be found as far as how to help someone else who is having a panic attack, so this week I wanted to share a list of do’s and don’ts for the loved ones of those struggling. 

1. Do talk to them. Tell them that it is only temporary and that they are going to be okay. Be a calm and reassuring voice during the storm.

1b. Don’t judge or sound patronizing. It may sound silly that I even have to day this, but I have heard many people respond to a loved one’s panic attack with:

“Not this again…”

“Seriously? There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“Why are you always overreacting?”

Don’t do that. The last thing they need to feel is guilty for having a panic attack. It is not something that they have any control over in the moment.

2. Do encourage them to breathe. Panic attacks frequently result in short, shallow breathing. Encouraging someone to take slow, deep breaths can help to reset their body’s response to the percieved threat. It will help calm their mind and body.

2b. Don’t tell them to calm down or relax. This just isn’t going to be helpful. There is a big difference between telling someone to calm down and walking them through an activity to help them achieve calm. 

Telling someone to calm down or relax in the midst of a panic attack is only going to make them feel worse. Trust me.

3. Do give them permission to move. If they are in an environment where there is a lot of noise or a lot of people, take them somewhere quiet. Wide open spaces can often intensify feelings of anxiety. Try to find somewhere quiet where there is less stimulation.

3b. Don’t leave. Stay with them. Let them know that you will continue to make sure that they are safe. Being with someone when they are having a panic attack can be frustrating, even annoying. Don’t let those feelings keep you from being a safe person for them. If it’s frustrating for you, imagine how they feel!

4. Do try to engage the person in conversation. If you are close to the person or have known them for a long time, you know what topics may pique their interest. Casually bring up a topic to help provide a way out of the anxiety. 

4b. Don’t attempt to distract the person. “Hey, look at that tree!” is not likely to help. Your attempts to distract will be perceived as such and will likely frustrate the person. Don’t be too directive. You can offer suggestions, but don’t try to steer.

5. Do show curiosity. After the panic attack has resolved, don’t be afraid to ask your loved one about their experience. They may not be able to answer, so just show them that you support them and want to help by understanding more about their experience.

5b. Don’t ask them why they had a panic attack. Why questions often put a person on the defensive; they feel like they have to validate their experience. They may not even know what triggered the panic attack and may be frustrated by their inability to answer.

Be gentle. Be curious. Show compassion. Encourage them to seek help if they have not done so already. But above all, continue to love and support them as you always have (or better).

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