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Help someone having a panic attack

Although they aren’t necessarily common, panic disorders affect between 2 and 3% of all American adults. In fact, 4.7% of American adults will experience a panic attack during their lifetime. These statistics are markedly higher for adults in their late teens to early twenties and doubled for women. For friends and family, it is important to know how to help someone having a panic attack.

Due to the concentration of cases in these demographics, the reality is that you probably know someone who has or currently does suffer from a panic disorder. In order to do what you can for them in the event of an attack, you must be able to recognize a panic attack and respond effectively.

What to Look For

The symptoms of a panic attack can vary from person to person. In some minor cases, they are almost indiscernible if you don’t know what to look for because the most common symptoms are mainly internal. Mental Health First Aid warns that panic attacks can manifest in several ways. The following list comprises the most common symptoms.

  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Numbness
  • Dizziness
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Chest Pain
  • Abdominal Distress
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Fear of “going crazy” or dying
  • Chills and Hot Flashes
  • Feeling Choked
  • Feeling Faint
  • Feeling that you are detached from reality

Given the nature of these symptoms, a bystander is only likely to notice general physical and emotional distress. You may note that they are breathing heavily or look visibly confused. Unfortunately, these symptoms could be associated with a long list of other medical conditions.
Therefore, your first priority is to assess the situation to establish what the person is going through.

Assessing the Situation

Differentiating a panic attack from a medical situation that requires emergency help can be difficult, so your ability to assess the situation will rely on your ability to communicate clearly and concisely. A person in the throes of a panic attack will only be able to process small amounts of information at a time. All of their internal systems are in over-drive, so you will need to be patient.

Ask and Listen

Start by asking short, basic questions.

  • “Has this happened before?” Wait for a response. Try a different question if you get no answer.
  • “Do you want an ambulance?”
  • “Have you been feeling stressed?”

Your goal is to figure out if they know what is happening to them and if they require emergency help. Regardless of whether you end up calling 911, you will need to manage the situation until the attack has passed or the ambulance arrives.

Managing the Attack

Your last question should always be, “What might help you?” If they need to be moved away from a crowd or sat down, offer aid. Once they’re settled, stop asking questions. Instead, provide gentle assurance. Stay calm, talk slowly, and help them to focus on their breathing by encouraging them to count to ten with you.

On average, the longest attacks can last between 20 and 30 minutes, but most panic attacks will only last 5 to 10 minutes. During this time, stay with them to ensure continuity and support while they recover.

After the Attack

Once the attack has passed, it is important to show that you genuinely care for their well-being. See if they need you to call someone to pick them up, and encourage them to reach out to a medical professional regarding their attacks.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be used to teach patients how to recognize their triggers and manage their symptoms. In ten weekly sessions, the “Panic No More” program at Cognitive Behavior Associates will help patients to restructure their reactions to common anxiety behaviors and address avoidance behaviors.