A Guide to helping someone having a panic attack

2 Jun 2021

Curtain Hug

By Urvi Agrawal

On their way to school, Sneha asked Manju if she was worried about the results of their mid-term exams as she was a bit tensed about them. Manju scoffed at her as she knew Sneha was going to secure the first rank anyway. They entered the hallway and checked their results on the notice board. Sneha was elated as both of them had secured good marks. But where was Manju? Sneha turned around and saw Manju sweating profusely and trembling. Sneha thought that Manju was just “tensed” like her. But, Manju looked scared and had chills over her body. She was short of breath. Manju said: “I am scared, I think I will die. My chest hurts. I think I am having a panic attack”. Baffled and confused, Sneha did not know how to help her friend.
What should Sneha have done?
Most people, including us, do not know how to help a person having a panic attack. We often misinterpret it as a heart attack or even a seizure. Then what distinguishes a panic attack?

Panic attacks are usually characterized by a sudden feeling of terror or impending doom. These can happen anytime without any cause or reason. Manju hadn’t experienced an event that could make her think that she was dying. She scored good marks and was relaxed, unlike Sneha, who was tensed. Yet, Manju believed she was on the verge of death. It could seem like a typical response to a threat, but in this case, no actual danger was present. This is a common feature of most panic attacks. The triggers for a panic attack are not always known or easy to guess. Thus, people who get panic attacks are often fearful and anxious as they don’t know when the next episode will strike. They display symptoms like Manju did, such as fear of death, chills, trembling, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, etc.

Here’s a guide to helping a friend during a panic attack:
Learn about panic attacks: If your friend has panic attacks, take some time to study its signs. This will help you to respond faster. Each person experiences panic attacks differently. But, mostly, they start with a sense of terror, shortness of breath, chest pain, shaking, etc.

Be calm and take action: Usually, panic attacks don’t last long. They last for about 5-10 minutes. If your friend is having a panic attack, just stay calm. Talk in a calm voice. You can reassure them that you won’t leave them alone. Tell them that the attack will pass away quickly. Make them feel safe. You can engage them in a light conversation, take them to another room or remind them to keep breathing.
Ask them how you can provide help: Most people who have panic attacks are aware of their coping strategies. These strategies work the best for them. If your loved one has a panic attack, ask them in advance how you can help them in such cases. You can take a step back to give them their space but keep an eye on them. Do not take their response personally.

Show compassion: You can empathize with your friend or a loved one without trying to decipher their panic attack. Sometimes, panic attacks can occur without reason(such as in sleep) or under stressful conditions. Showing compassion will help your friend to not feel ashamed or embarrassed of the situation. Do not pass any judgment on your friend’s situation. Even though it may look illogical to you, it is still very real for your friend. Say things like: “I understand it’s tough. Let me know how I can help you.”
Use grounding techniques: Grounding techniques are beneficial in dealing with panic attacks. You can hold their hand if they are comfortable, encourage them to move, talk slowly, repeat useful phrases, etc.
Unlike Sneha, now you know how to help someone experiencing a panic attack. Remember to be calm and do not judge a person having an attack. Support them. Your compassion will go a long way in helping a person dealing with panic attacks.