What to do if your loved one is having a severe panic attack

What to do if your loved one is having a severe panic attack

Approximately three percent of the population in the United States experiences panic attacks, and almost one-half of those have been labeled severe. Having a panic attack can be an intensely terrifying event for both the person experiencing it and for those close to him or her. Many times, a panic attack can be mistaken for a physical condition, such as a heart attack, since some of the symptoms mirror each other.

Symptoms of a panic attack can include the following:

  • Increased heart rate, chest pain, and/or chest palpitations
  • Body temperature changes, such as sweating or chills
  • Feeling of choking, suffocation, hyperventilation, or shortness of breath
  • Nausea or abdominal discomfort
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Derealization or depersonalization
  • Trembling, tingling, or feelings of numbness
  • Fear of losing control or of imminent death

Onset of symptoms can be rapid and last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, some people seek emergency services. Once a person experiences a panic attack, he or she often begins to worry that another attack will occur in the future.

Despite the terrifying nature of a panic attack, there are ways in which those close to the individual can help him or her until the attack subsides.


Do

Do become educated

In order to best assist an individual who is experiencing a panic attack, one must first understand the nature of the condition. It is important to become educated about the symptoms of panic, what a panic attack is like for the person experiencing it, and what types of professional treatments are available for the person. This type of education will enhance a person’s ability to help a loved one, dispel any myths, and remove any negative perceptions about the person’s condition.

Do be supportive

Individuals who suffer from panic attacks often isolate themselves, as they think that no one understands what they are experiencing. Others may be embarrassed. Relatedly, some may fear having another panic attack, and thus, they will withdraw from others to minimize the likelihood of a future attack happening in the presence of people. All of these scenarios can lead to feelings of loneliness. Such isolation, embarrassment, withdrawal, and loneliness do not help an individual suffering from panic attacks. Therefore, they can benefit from having supportive family and friends, who encourage them to seek professional treatment and remind them that they are not alone. This also fosters a solid rapport based on a foundation of trust.

Do assist with relaxation strategies

One common treatment strategy that is often taught in psychotherapy is relaxation. While this recommendation is not made in place of seeking professional treatment, it can be beneficial for family and friends to assist the individual with relaxation strategies. When a panic attack is occurring, a person’s breathing often accelerates and/or he or she experiences shortness of breath. Deep breathing exercises can assist with regulating a person’s breathing.

A common protocol is for a person to breathe in through his or her nose for five seconds, hold his or her breath for two seconds, and then exhale through his or her mouth for an additional five seconds. As a family member or friend, you can assist the person with counting slowly and methodically to ensure that he or she is getting the maximum benefit from this. Before the next panic attack occurs, it would be beneficial for family and friends to discuss with the person which strategies are most effective for and preferred by them.

Do listen to and talk with the person throughout the panic attack

It would be beneficial for the person to have the opportunity to express him- or herself throughout the panic attack. As a family member or friend, you can ask the person how he or she is feeling and what he or she is experiencing at the present moment. Continually reassure the person that he or she is safe and that you will not let anything negative happen to him or her. It is also important to keep the person focused on the present moment and discourage him or her from any futuristic thinking.

Do take care of yourself

Supporting someone who suffers from panic attacks can be demanding and, at times, overwhelming. In order to be a positive resource for the individual, it is important that you take care of yourself as well. This may include routinely participating in activities that you enjoy, taking time away from the individual, and setting healthy boundaries with him or her as to when you will and will not be available. Without these healthy limits, you may build resentment toward the person, which would not be beneficial for either of you.

Overall, self-care involves addressing your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs and ensuring that a healthy lifestyle is being maintained. If activities, such as exercise or hobbies, are not sufficient, family and friends can consider pursuing their own individual psychotherapy and/or a caregiver group for additional support. Most importantly, this type of self-care provides an excellent model for a person suffering from panic attacks to emulate.


Don't

Do not assume the role of a treatment professional

While being supportive is imperative, it is not appropriate for a family member or friend to assume the role of a mental health professional. Psychologists and other therapists have specialized skills that enable them to work effectively with those suffering from panic. Without sufficient knowledge of the disorder and available interventions, well-meaning family and friends can cause more harm to the individual if they attempt to step foot into that type of role. Moreover, it places an undue burden on the family member or friend.

Do not exacerbate a panic attack

It is possible that family members and friends will be present during an individual’s panic attack. It is imperative that family members and friends do not escalate the situation by becoming overly emotional. Instead, family members and friends can assist the person who is suffering from a panic attack by remaining calm and reassuring. This is enhanced by, as noted above, being educated about the nature of panic disorder. If family members and friends become anxious, upset, or even angry when their loved one experiences a panic attack, the individual can be adversely affected by feeling guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed. These feelings can often lead to increased anxiety, loneliness, and isolation.

Do not assume you are being manipulated

Given the nature of panic disorder, individuals may avoid certain situations due to the fear of having a panic attack while there. The intensity of the fear can vary, so the individual may be able to participate on some days, but not on others. Until this is addressed successfully through professional treatment, family members and friends may notice inconsistencies in the person’s behaviors. This is not intended to be manipulative, but rather is a manifestation of the varying intensity of the person’s fears.

Do not be critical

As mentioned above, individuals suffering from panic attacks often feel embarrassed, ashamed, or isolated. It may be difficult for them to reach out to others for help due to fears of being misunderstood or criticized. Instead, recognize every step that the person is taking no matter how small and provide praise for the courage that he or she is exhibiting.

Do not force them into feared situations prematurely

Only a treatment professional working with the person directly can best gauge when he or she is ready to be exposed to a feared situation. Doing this prematurely or before the person is fully ready can exacerbate his or her panic and/or tendencies to withdraw and isolate. While it is important to be supportive and encouraging, it is equally imperative to allow the individual to progress through the treatment process at a pace that feels comfortable to him or her.


Summary
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Panic attacks can be a debilitating experience for an individual, as he or she is faced with terrifying anxiety and subsequent feelings of embarrassment, isolation, and even helplessness. Watching a loved one endure panic attacks can be equally difficult for family members and friends. Those close to the individual may not know how best to help and may be afraid of doing or saying “the wrong thing.” However, by familiarizing oneself with the advice presented here, family members and friends can provide enormous assistance to their loved one who is struggling with panic attacks. Despite the benefits that can come from supportive family and friends, such help is not intended to take the place of professional mental health treatment, which remains the first-line intervention for panic disorder.


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Peter N. DeNigris, Psy.D.Clinical & Forensic Psychologist

Dr. Peter DeNigris earned his Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology from the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology (GSAPP) at Rutgers University. His general practice involves evaluating and treating adolescents and adults using a cogni...

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