A panic attack is a sudden intense fear or anxiety that triggers severe physical reactions when there’s no real danger or apparent cause. It may feel like you’re losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.
During a panic attack, a person’s fear and dread are often disproportionate to the situation and may not correspond with their surroundings. Stress, traumatic events, genetic predisposition, and certain medical and psychological conditions can cause panic attacks.
It’s crucial to understand how to respond during someone’s panic attack, as it can offer immediate comfort and aid.
Learning how to help someone having a panic attack is crucial as it can help alleviate their symptoms, reduce the intensity of the attack, and potentially prevent further panic attacks. Panic attacks can be frightening for the person experiencing them and those who are present.
Signs and Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Panic attacks can affect anyone, but they’re more common in people with panic or other anxiety disorders. They tend to begin in late adolescence or early adulthood.
Factors that increase vulnerability include a family history of anxiety disorders, a history of physical or sexual abuse, and significant life stressors.
Women are twice as likely as men to experience panic attacks. Certain personality traits, like being more nervous or sensitive to stress, can also increase the risk. Additionally, individuals with significant physical health conditions or those undergoing major life changes might be more susceptible to panic attacks.
Panic attack symptoms, both physical and psychological, can be profoundly alarming. They often come on suddenly and peak within minutes.
- Rapid Heartbeat
- The heart might start pounding, leading to palpitations or a rapid heartbeat, which can feel like a fluttering sensation in the chest.
- Sweating and Trembling
- In a panic attack, you might experience severe sweating and shaking.
- Shortness of Breath
- You might have difficulty breathing or feel like you’re choking.
- Chest Pain
- Some people experience chest pain or discomfort, which can be alarming as it may feel similar to the symptoms of a heart attack.
- Nausea and Dizziness
- Nausea, dizziness, or lightheadedness can also occur during a panic attack.
Emotional or psychological symptoms
- Fear of Losing Control
- This is a common fear during a panic attack; you may feel like you’re going crazy or losing your mind.
- Fear of Death
- Some people experience an intense fear of dying during a panic attack.
- Detachment from Reality
- You might feel detached from yourself or your surroundings, creating a sensation of unreality.
While these symptoms can be highly distressing, it’s important to remember that they’re not life-threatening. Understanding these symptoms can help someone with a panic attack or those around them recognize what’s happening and take steps to manage the situation.
Video courtesy of Psych Hub.
What to Do When Someone has a Panic Attack
When someone is experiencing a panic attack, here are some actions you can take to provide support:
- Stay Calm and Reassuring
- Maintaining your composure can create a calming atmosphere and help the person regain control of their emotions. Ensure you’re there for them and remind them that the panic attack will pass.
- Encourage Slow, Deep Breathing
- During a panic attack, people often hyperventilate, which can exacerbate feelings of fear and anxiety. Prompt the individual to breathe slowly and deeply, holding their breath briefly before exhaling gradually. This technique eases the heart rate and induces calmness.
- Help Them Find a Comfortable Position
- The person may feel more at ease in a particular position. This could be sitting down, lying down, or slowly walking around. Inquire about their preferred comfort position and help them assume it.
- Encourage a Calming Focus
- Distracting the person from their current state of panic can be beneficial. Encourage them to think of a calming image or thought. This could be a favorite memory, place, or person.
What Not to Do When Someone Has a Panic Attack
When someone is experiencing a panic attack, specific actions or reactions may be unhelpful or even worsen the situation. Here are things to avoid:
- Avoid Telling Them to “Calm Down”
- This may sound like a practical suggestion, but it can make the person feel dismissed or misunderstood. It’s better to assure them they’re safe, and that the panic attack will eventually pass.
- Do Not Minimize Their Feelings
- Panic attacks are terrifying experiences, and the person is not exaggerating their feelings. Avoid dismissing or minimizing their feelings. Instead, validate their experience and show empathy.
- Do Not Be Overly Critical or Judgmental
- It’s essential to remain supportive and understanding during a panic attack. Judging or criticizing them can heighten their anxiety and worsen the situation.
- Do Not Encourage Ignoring Their Symptoms
- While distraction can help, suggesting they ignore their symptoms could make them feel invalidated. Instead, encourage coping mechanisms, like deep breathing or focusing on a calming image.
Additional Ways to Help Someone During and After a Panic Attack
While knowing what to do when someone has a panic attack is vital, there are additional measures you can employ to help ground someone during these intense moments of fear.
- Encourage Focus on the Senses
- Grounding techniques can be effective in managing panic attacks. Encourage the person to focus on their senses. This technique often helps to ground the person in reality and shift their focus away from their internal sensations.
- Use Reassuring Touch, If Appropriate
- A comforting touch, such as a hand on their shoulder or a hug, can provide a sense of safety if you have a close relationship with the person. However, always ask before initiating physical contact, as touch may not always be comforting to everyone.
- Remind Them of Their Surroundings
- Helping them to become aware of their environment can also assist in grounding. Ask them to describe what they see around them. This can help to refocus their attention away from their anxiety.
After the panic attack, there are further steps you can take to provide support.
- Allow Them to Rest and Recover
- Panic attacks can be physically exhausting. Encourage them to detail their surroundings, shifting their focus from anxiety to their environment.
- Encourage Professional Help
- If the person regularly experiences panic attacks, suggest they seek professional help. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors can provide practical strategies for managing panic attacks.
- Offer Ongoing Support and Reassurance
- Having a trusted person to rely on can provide comfort during such instances. Stay connected and check in with them periodically to show your continued support.
Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: Understanding The Difference
While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, panic and anxiety attacks are distinct phenomena with distinct characteristics.
Panic attacks are part of panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). They’re sudden and intense, often occurring without a clear trigger.
Symptoms peak within 10 minutes and can include rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, trembling, and a fear of dying or losing control.
On the other hand, anxiety attacks are not defined in the DSM-5 and often refer to a range of symptoms that build over time due to excessive worry or stress. These attacks can be related to a specific situation or issue, and symptoms might include restlessness, feeling on edge, and difficulty concentrating.
It’s important to recognize these distinctions to accurately identify what an individual is experiencing and guide appropriate treatment or intervention. The strategies for helping someone during these episodes may overlap, but understanding the nature of each condition can lead to more effective, personalized help.
Understanding panic attacks, triggers, and symptoms is vital for providing adequate support. Helping someone during a panic attack involves reassurance, implementing calming techniques, and providing ongoing support.
Furthermore, recognizing the difference between panic and anxiety attacks can guide appropriate intervention, ultimately helping individuals manage these distressing experiences more effectively.
Video courtesy of Dr. Julie.
Panic Attack FAQ
What are the 3 types of panic attacks?
Three types of panic attacks are spontaneous panic attacks that occur without warning, situationally bound panic attacks that happen due to specific triggers, and situationally predisposed panic attacks, which are not always triggered but are likely in certain situations.
How do you break a panic attack cycle?
To break a panic attack cycle, one needs to recognize triggers, employ relaxation methods such as deep breathing and meditation, and pursue professional assistance, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
How long does it take to control panic attacks?
The duration of controlling panic attacks varies; it depends on the individual response to therapy. Many people see significant improvements in 2 to 3 months with consistent treatment like cognitive behavioral therapy.
How long can a panic attack last?
Panic attacks typically peak within 10 minutes and rarely last more than 30 minutes, but the after-effects can linger for a more extended period.
What triggers panic attacks?
Panic attacks can be triggered by stress, specific fears or phobias, changes in brain function, certain medical conditions, or even intense exercise.
What makes panic attacks go away?
Panic attacks often subside on their own. Coping strategies like deep breathing, grounding techniques, and cognitive behavioral therapy can help manage symptoms and potentially reduce the frequency of attacks.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA