The Best Way To Help Someone Having A Panic Attack, According To A Mental Health Professional

Although the onrush of fear that characterizes a panic attack is an internal experience, there are still external signs that bystanders can look for that may indicate a person is having a panic attack. Even more, we can learn what steps to take to best support that person in the moment.

In an exclusive interview, Health Digest spoke with Dr. Sarah Gaumer, a licensed clinical psychologist at The Psychology Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She's been practicing for 8 years and has specialized training and experience treating OCD, anxiety, panic disorder, and other related disorders.

Dr. Gaumer starts by highlighting many of the different symptoms often experienced by those in the midst of a panic attack. "Some of the most common symptoms of a panic attack are shortness of breath, shakiness, nausea, rapid heart rate, sweating, dizziness, chest pain/pressure, blurry vision, fear of choking, and fear of losing control or dying," she states. "This cluster of symptoms can sometimes be confused for a heart attack. These symptoms also can mimic what our body goes through during or after intense exercise."

The importance of validation and effective communication

Dr. Gaumer goes on to tell Health Digest that panic attacks are usually relatively short in duration. "Most panic attacks resolve within an hour or less, and they generally peak within the first 10 to 20 minutes," she explains. However, this doesn't mean that the experience of a panic attack isn't debilitating. "While they are relatively short, they are extremely uncomfortable and distressing to someone experiencing the attack."

"There is no way to stop the panic attack in its tracks, but there are some things you can do to guide the person through so they don't make it worse," says Dr. Gaumer. "Panic attacks are like a powerful wave, and you can only help someone ride it out until it peaks and eventually resolves." The first thing to do, she says, is to validate the person's experience. "Tell them you want to help them through the emotional storm they are experiencing," she suggests. To do so, keep your language straightforward. "Speak in short, concise sentences," Dr. Gaumer advises. "The person is in an extremely heightened state and will have trouble processing complex requests and commands."

Focus on physical movement and staying present

Third, try and encourage the person to engage in physical activities. "Encourage the person to move around and focus on their behaviors and actions," Dr. Gaumer tells us exclusively. "Suggest they stand up, stretch, move around, push their feet into the floor, drink water, or do anything so they are not frozen in place."

Sharing her fourth tip, Dr. Gaumer emphasizes attempting to keep the individual experiencing the panic attack in the present moment. "Try to anchor the person in the present so they don't get swept away by the storm of emotions they are experiencing," she says. "Guide them in identifying what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. This is not to distract, as that can make panic attacks worse long-term, but to acknowledge that there is more in the present than the intense sensations and feelings that now dominate their awareness." In doing so, she explains that this can help lessen the severity of a panic attack and aid the person in enduring the discomfort until the wave passes.

Breathing techniques and supportive methods to avoid

"If the panic attack is severe and it doesn't seem like it will resolve within a few minutes, you can guide them through something called 'paced breathing,' which activates the body's relaxation response," Dr. Gaumer tells Health Digest. "Paced breathing is inhaling for a short amount of time and exhaling for a longer amount of time. For example, inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds." While effective, Dr. Gaumer cautions that this method should only be used after all other coping techniques have been tried first. "Continue paced breathing until the panic attack begins to subside," she says. "This technique is to be used as a last resort as it can become ineffective if it is overused." Lastly, Dr. Gaumer says that an encouraging word can go a long way. "Provide them with praise and support," she states. "Tell them they are doing a great job and remind them they will make it through."

Alternatively, Dr. Gaumer explains that some methods of support are best avoided, such as deep breathing exercises. "This can actually trigger hyperventilation and increase the intensity of the panic attack. Deep breathing only makes the panic attack worse," she states. "Do not minimize, shame, or ridicule," she adds. "Keep in mind the person does not want to be having a panic attack and would actively choose not to have one. They also probably understand that logically there is no reason for them to be anxious."

The value in reaching out for help

Concluding our chat, Dr. Gaumer emphasizes that we can all be susceptible to panic attacks every now and again. "Panic attacks are common, even among people who do not have panic disorder," she says. "They are a very normal response to stress, unexpected life changes, or even grief and loss. If someone has a panic attack or two, there is no cause for concern." However, if a person is experiencing panic attacks more regularly, Dr. Gaumer encourages reaching out for additional support. "Consider seeking out a mental health professional if panic attacks increase in frequency and intensity, they start to occur without an identifiable trigger, or they begin to interfere with your daily life."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.