6 ways to help someone having a panic attack

January 08, 2016 | by M. Joann Wright, Ph.D.
You probably know someone who has had a panic attack.

Panic disorder affects about 6 million American adults and is twice as common in women as men, the National Institute of Mental Health reports.

During a panic attack, your body reacts as if it is in danger -- only there is no imminent danger beyond the person’s own thoughts.

Imagine yourself suddenly feeling light-headed and dizzy. Your heart starts racing and you start to sweat. You think you feel pain in your chest and worry that you’re going to die.
For about 10 awful minutes, you feel completely out of control. You can’t function.

The feeling eventually passes, though some symptoms may linger for a while.

For the person experiencing the attack, it’s a nightmare. Watching someone you love go through that is difficult as well. You feel helpless.

During a panic attack, which is a type of anxiety disorder, most people experience some of these symptoms:

- Rapid heartbeat
- Weakness, or feeling faint or dizzy
- Numb fingers or toes
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Fear that they are dying or losing their mind
- Sweating, or cold sweats
- Stomach upset
- Shaking
- Feeling detached from what’s going on around you

While you can’t stop the attack, there are ways to support someone having one.

- Understand that the person is not in any danger medically.
- Help the person focus on the present moment and not future worry.  Making eye contact and assisting them in slowing their breathing can help keep them present.  
- Know this will pass quickly; typically within 10-15 minutes.
- Listen to what they’re saying and be understanding, but don’t buy into what their mind is coming up with (e.g., “I’m not going to make it through this”). 
- Move to a quiet place and stay with your friend in order to avoid a crowd.
- Let them know that you care about them, and you will help them through this. Ask them what they need.

There is good news for people who struggle with anxiety disorders -- they are treatable! A one-on-one meeting with a therapist is a good place to start. We also offer an anxiety program at Linden Oaks with a Partial Hospitalization Program and an Intensive Outpatient Program for both adolescents and adults, should you need a higher level of care.

The first step to feeling better is identifying the problem. Take our free, confidential behavioral health assessment.

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