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How to Help Yourself or Someone When Having An Anxiety or Panic Attack

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Close up of the dictionary definition of panic - to inspire sudden fear

Firstly, if you’re worried that someone’s life is in danger, please call 911 or any emergency medical services available where you live.

While on its own, an anxiety or panic attack is not normally life-threatening, it can affect people’s mental state and put anyone experiencing one at risk of self-harm or suicide. If you think there is a possibility of danger, contact a professional who can help you.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the national suicide hotline, 800-273-8255.

Anyone with social anxiety, an inability to communicate verbally, or any other issue making speech difficult, can text 741741 for the crisis text line.

If you’re worried that you or someone you care about is having an anxiety or panic attack, but it is NOT an active emergency, keep reading, and we’ll discuss how to recognize an anxiety or panic attack, and how to help someone who’s experiencing one.

How to Recognize an Anxiety or Panic Attack

If you’re in need of advice immediately, please scroll down to the section marked “How To Help” to get tips on what to do if you or someone you care about is experiencing a panic or anxiety attack right now. If you want to know how to tell them apart, keep reading.

While many people talk about them as if they’re the same thing, panic attacks and anxiety attacks are actually different. The following describes symptoms for both so you can understand the difference. 

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are defined as intense periods of fear or feelings of doom developing over a very short time frame, and include physical symptoms like heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, trembling, shortness of breath, dizziness, chills and hot flashes, numbness or tingling, chest pain, and a sensation of choking.

Additionally, there’s often sudden overwhelming fear or anxiety, and a fear of dying or a sense of impending death or doom. Panic attacks can feel like a heart attack, and many people in this position think they’re having a heart issue and go to the hospital, when in reality it is a panic attack.

Panic attacks are usually sudden and more intense than anxiety attacks, and come with a sense of detachment from reality.

Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks are very similar to panic attacks and can include many of the same symptoms.

However, anxiety attacks usually happen in response to a stressor––such as class or overwhelming responsibilities––where panic attacks can happen without cause and manifest much more suddenly, and the sense of unreality that often accompanies panic attacks is not usually present during anxiety attacks.

Additionally, the physical symptoms are usually more prominent in a panic attack, whereas an anxiety attack has more of an increase in mental distress and fear.

How to Help

Here’s the truly important part: how to help someone who’s experiencing a panic or anxiety attack. Considering the two are exceedingly similar, you can follow this advice regardless of which one the person is experiencing.

However, knowing whether what they experienced was a panic or anxiety attack can be helpful in determining any patterns in behavior, as well as if they might be signs of a panic disorder or anxiety disorder.

  1. Ask Them What You Can Do

If you’re helping someone experiencing a panic or anxiety attack and you’re fine, ask them what you can do. Many people with a panic or anxiety disorder will have experience getting through attacks like this and will know what will help them.

If this is a new experience for them, then you should still ask before you try anything that might be invasive or potentially uncomfortable, like touching them.

3 separate images in a collage of a woman working at a computer with movement in the dark light of her computer screen depicting the anxiety of trying to finish her work on time

Alternatively, if you’re the person experiencing the attack:

  1. Ask Other People For Help

It’s really hard to do, but it can make a world of difference. Ask someone you trust to help you through your panic or anxiety attack. If there’s no one physically near you, call or use an app like Discord, Zoom, or Facetime to get in contact with someone you trust.

Having someone there to help keep you grounded can be a big help in getting through a panic or anxiety attack, so don’t hesitate to ask if you need help. 

  1. Breathe

It’s simple, but it works. Take deep breaths, or guide whoever is experiencing the attack to breathe in for a count of 4, hold their breath for a count of 7, and breathe out for a count of 8. If they can’t at first that’s fine, but have them keep trying.

The 4-7-8 breathing pattern has been proven to reduce stress, and giving them a focus will help them through the panic or anxiety attack. If another pattern works better you can use that too, but make sure they’re taking deep, measured breaths.

  1. Use a Grounding Technique

Grounding is an exercise to help keep you focused on the here and now and stop you from panicking. Have the person experiencing the panic or anxiety attack name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can touch, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste.

Forcing your mind to focus on your five senses will help keep you grounded as the attack subsides. For some people, physical touch is an excellent grounding method, like running their hands along walls, furniture, or being hugged by another person.

However, for others, this might be extremely uncomfortable. Every person is different, and you should always ask before trying to do anything that might make them uneasy.

A woman, disheveled laying sideways in bed, depicting anxiety and panic as her pillows and blankets are strewn across the bed
  1. Shock Your System

When your body begins to panic, sometimes a quick shock to your system can snap you out of it. Here are a few ways you can shock your system:

  • Squeeze an ice cube in your hand or put an ice cube in your mouth
  • Eat a pinch of salt
  • Bite into a lemon
  • Dunk your head in ice-cold water

For many people, a quick shock like this can help snap them out of a panic or anxiety attack, as it forces your brain to reassess the new stimuli and snap out of panic mode.

  1. Use Muscle Relaxation Techniques

In the same way breathing exercises help focus and relax you, so do muscle relaxation exercises. Consciously focus on relaxing one muscle at a time, from your feet through your legs, up through your arms and chest, to your head.

Panic attacks make your body clench because it’s anticipating trauma. Consciously relaxing yourself will help with the attack.

  1. Remind Them It Will Pass

Panic attacks rarely last longer than 30 minutes in extreme cases. Keep breathing, and you’ll get through it. Having that light at the end of the tunnel can make it easier to get through.

Part of what makes a panic attack so terrible is it can literally feel like you’re dying. Remind yourself or the person experiencing the attack that it’s just temporary.

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are so incredibly common that up to 40% of the population will experience one in their lives. However, repeated attacks, fear of attacks, or negative impacts by attacks at multiple times in your life can all be signs of a more serious mental condition.

If you are worried about how your life is affected by your anxiety or by repeated panic attacks, contact a healthcare professional to find out what kind of help you might need.