How To Help Someone During Anxiety And Panic Attacks

Anxiety is, like many other mental disorders, a very complex experience. It´s often hard to understand for the people suffering and even harder to understand for someone who isn´t. I mean how could you understand someone being afraid of something irrational so much that it controls their entire life? During my personal fight with anxiety I´ve found other people to be a very helpful resource. but how is someone supposed to know how to help if they don´t understand what´s going on?! Here´s a little guide as to how everyone can help a person that is suffering from an anxious episode or panic attack.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a mental disorder that, in its very basic conception, is an overreaction to a reasonable (or unreasonable) fearful situation. It is often accompanied by a lot of worrying in general, panic attacks and physical symptoms like elevated heart rate, sweating or feeling sick. There are thousands of different anxiety disorders and therefore different experiences of symptoms and triggers. It can also be caused by a variety of factors but some anxiety patients recall a certain traumatic experience that was the started point. It´s a very individual disorder so talking with the person that is suffering from it is always best.

For me there have been two distinct forms when my anxiety comes up. First off are anxious episodes. These are a longer time period in which I have a rather high anxiety level where my thoughts spin around my worries and I experience mild physical symptoms. If it´s worse these episodes could take weeks until their over. Often their caused by something I´m afraid of in the very near future or general stress. Secondly, there are panic attacks. It´s the typical thing you hear about with anxiety: a short time period (most likely 10-20 minutes) in which I feel extremely anxious, can´t think about anything else and experience high physical symptoms.


The First Step

When someone confides in you and tells you that they´re struggling with anxiety you´re most likely in a position where it´s likely that you´ll be with that person during either an anxious episode or panic attack. The first and most important step in that situation is asking the person for how you can help them should they experience any symptoms around you. As I said before anxiety is a very individual thing so what works for someone else might not work for your person. Asking this question while they experience such a situation is often not really helpful as they might not be able to express themselves or might not even know what they want. But with experiencing a few episodes or attacks people with anxiety quickly learn what will help them in that situation. Nonetheless if you´re unsure around a currently anxious person ask them! If they can´t give you an outright answer try coming up with ways to help them and just ask them if that would be okay. Often a nod or shake of the head is still possible.

To help you come up with ideas on what might be helpful or just get a general idea of how you can help someone suffering from anxiety I´ve listed 5 things I would like someone to do during an anxious episode or panic attack.


How To Help With An Anxious Episode

1. Be aware of changes in their behavior. The most important thing is noticing when an Episode beings because it rarely ever announces itself. Whenever I experience an anxious episode I pull everything inward as everything is surrounding my worries. So noticing if I keep my hands to myself (or even at my belly) or if my eyes are centered on whatever is in front of me and mostly if I still actively take part in whatever is going on around me are great indicators.

2. Directly speak to them. While everything pulls inward so are my thoughts and worries that are then taking over my mind. Try to talk to me and get me to actively engage in a conversation. Often forcing me out of my head that way can make me click out of my episode. If that doesn´t work just keep talking at me to give me something else to think about. Please be aware though that you should always speak very calmly and relaxed to someone with anxiety. Screaming at them will not drown out their worries but rather make them worse.

3. Give them support. Simply be there for me whether that is done by talking with me through my worries or simply giving me a tight hug. Often getting a more rational view on my worries gives me a bit more confidence and like many other anxious people I really like the feeling of being supported by someone. Also I often tend to forget everything that I´ve already accomplished despite my anxiety so reminding me of those things really helps.

4. Try to take their mind off. Similarly with talking to me just do anything to get me out of my own head. I know that for me watching short-lived, colorful, lighthearted and engaging content (e.g. Friends) really helps calm me and my thoughts down. I also really like watching Youtube videos in those situations. Just make sure that whatever you´re putting on for me has no triggers in it.

5. Go outside. Movement is honestly the best antidote to an anxious episode as my brain has to focus on it rather than whatever worries are currently spinning around my head. Plus, fresh air is always the best thing and definitely helps to clear my mind and make me breath deeper. So having someone to encourage you to actually go outside and not dwell on the anxiety is amazing!


How To Help With Panic Attacks

1. Give them privacy. When I have a panic attack I only want one thing: escape the situation. Your first step should always be to help me accomplish that. If we´re alone or at home try to leave the room of if we´re in public with no private space try to act as a wall between me and other people. This might sound contradictory but also stay close by to help me get through the panic attack. This could be done by staying in front of the door that is left a tiny bit open. Just whatever you do don´t look directly at me.

2. Help them remember ways to overcome panic attacks. When you´re staying close by you can remind me of certain breathing or relaxation techniques that I´ve learned in therapy. I know many of those techniques but sometimes when I get into a panic I might just not think about them. So reminding me is always helpful. If you can´t think of a certain technique in the moment then just encourage me to take deep belly breaths. That is the easiest and most common technique.

3. Be predictable. As much as jumping in and out of the room to bring me everything I need is a very cute gesture please don´t do it when I´m having a panic attack. When I´m being taken over by my own thought I can´t anticipate your next move and therefore am easily startled which will drive me deeper into the panic. Just try staying close and talking me through your every move before you actually move so that I know it before it happens. I might not consciously hear your words but my body will anticipate movement on your side.

4. Ask them to do a very basic task. While deep breathing is a great technique to slow down my physical symptoms my brain might still be occupied by panic thoughts. Try to ask me to repeat a very simple task such as raising my arms above my head or counting backwards from a set number over and over again. This will activate a different area of my brain and therefore make me focus on something besides my worries.

5. Take care of them afterwards. A panic attack is basically a big rush of adrenaline in my brain that decreases during a (hopefully) short time. So I feel almost dead afterwards. When I do just take care of me. Give me food, water, quiet and something I can watch or listen to. Help me relax and overcome the horrors I´ve just experienced. Depending on how I´m feeling a few hours later making me go outside for a walk or even seeing really close friends (very simple, comfortable things) can also help a lot to go into the next day with a positive feeling.


It is important to remember that my personal experience doesn´t account for every person that is suffering from anxiety. That is why talking to the person is really important. I honestly wished my family and friends would have asked me what exactly to do once we established that I had anxiety. I can only imagine how hard somebody´s anxiety can affect the life of other´s (as I´m mainly the person with anxiety). But if it affects me this much it must have a pretty bad effect on the people around me as well. I just hope whatever position you´re in that you´re staying safe and taking care of yourself too. Helping someone fight anxiety is a difficult and important task but you should never risk  your own mental health for it. Yes, anxiety is a very tough fight but it´s a fight that can be won!

3 comments

  1. This is such a useful post Lisa, and brave of you to write about your own experiences too! I also suffer with anxiety and panic attacks, and when people ask if they can help I never know how to explain. Thank you for putting it into words :)

    Take care and have a beautiful day!

    Emma xo

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  2. Great post but I do think that as you mentioned it's really important to communicate with the actual person as well. I've struggled with anxiety and panic attacks before and I know a lot of what people tried to do when they thought they were helping was actually the opposite of what I needed! It's such an individual thing anxiety is, I think that's part of the reason why it can be so difficult for people to understand as well.

    Julia // The Sunday Mode

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  3. I found this really insightful, even as someone with anxiety. It can be hard to know what's the right course of action to take x

    www.sheintheknow.co.uk // http://ittybittybookco.com?aff=13

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