My Friend Is Having a Panic Attack - What Do I Do?
Living in the constantly-on, constantly-moving, and constantly-behind society that we live in, it’s no surprise that panic attacks are a pretty normal occurrence for many people.
Those that struggle with panic attacks often report feeling misunderstood, as though their friends and family believe they are just being overdramatic.
But panic attacks are very real, and to those experiencing them, in the moment feel as though those critical moments are life threatening, even when they can’t explain why.
Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash
So as someone who wants to understand and help - what can you do?
1. Stay with them.
If you are with your friend in person, or they call you, just stay there. A calm, supportive voice can help to make the panic recede much faster than being left alone.
While you are there, make sure that you aren’t trying to talk them out of it. Saying things like “it’s all in your head” or “just calm down” are less than helpful.
Instead, understand that to them, whatever it is that is happening inside feels real in that moment. Panic attacks can feel as scary as a heart attack, and it’s difficult to get out of that headspace as it is happening.
Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you and you couldn’t breathe? That is a a similar kind of scary, except without the benefit of knowing why you suddenly feel the way you do, which takes it all up a notch.
2. Stay calm.
You, the trusted friend, are the one that has control in this situation. You can model calm, and walk through this with them rationally.
As cliche as it sounds, walking through breathing and grounding exercises can be really helpful. These exercises help to distract the mind from being in crisis mode - and honestly, if you don’t know breathing and grounding techniques - they will be good for you too, even without panic attacks!
If your friend has frequent panic attacks, you can remind them that they’ve been here before, and that they made it through successfully, even though it’s really scary.
3. Stay the course.
Your most important job is to not let them avoid their fears.
Don't let their panic alter the course of your plans with them.
Each time they successfully avoid doing something that is scary, they also are successful at convincing themselves that whatever they are afraid of (grocery stores? Bridges?) is worth being afraid of.
This just makes that panic have a tighter hold on them.
The more often they are able to successfully navigate these things, the less frequent their panic and anxiety about that thing will be.
This doesn’t mean that you need to be the one to force them into situations that are scary for them, but this does mean that holding them accountable for personal growth can be something that you also walk through with them.
Panic disorder is very treatable, and it doesn’t make sense to live a life that is controlled by it. Therapy can be extremely helpful to work through fears that are taking control of your loved one’s life.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor serving South Carolina. You can read more about her here.