Top 10 things to do (and not do) when someone is having a panic attack

As a therapist who works with individuals who experience panic attacks, here are my top 10 things friends, family and concerned others should do (and not do) when someone is having a panic attack. – Charlotte Johnson, MA, LPCC


1. Do be present and stay calm
  • By being present, you can help provide a sense of safety, grounding and calm.
  • Sitting down with the individual can be helpful not only to provide a sense of grounding (as you are literally near the ground) but can also help relieve psychological body responses such as dizziness
2. Do ask how you can help
  • What may be helpful for one person may not be helpful for another. Perhaps getting a drink of water is helpful. Maybe leaving the situation to take a walk helps. It could be just being by their side and doing nothing at all. Or maybe, helping practice coping skills.
3. Do encourage slow, deep breathing
  • Breathing helps the body calm down and naturally reduce symptoms of panic such as accelerated heart rate
  • Breathing helps one focus on their breath rather than symptoms of panic
4. Do engage in pleasant conversation
  • Conversation can be a great way to distract while also providing a fixed point of focus
  • Providing encouragement and positive affirmations can be a great distraction that also counters fears such as “losing control” or “going crazy”
5. Do offer support 
  • Panic attacks can be very scary, whether it is the 1st or 20th time! If you’ve experienced panic attacks before, it can be helpful to share this with a trusted individual who also struggles, as a way to help reduce stigma and officer support. Sharing what has worked can be helpful, especially when your own panic attacks have become manageable or are no longer present.


6. Don’t tell the individual who is having a panic attack to “just calm down” or “stop it”.
If only it were that simple! This can be very insulting to someone experiencing panic and is not helpful.
7. Don’t assume that you know what someone else needs. You do not know until you ask.
8. Don’t pace around frantically, “freak out” or leave the individual. This can exacerbate levels of distress and does nothing but worsen the situation.
9. Don’t say or do things that make the one experiencing a panic attack feel judged or humiliated. Don’t belittle or mock their coping strategies.
10. Don’t ignore the signs of someone in medical distress, especially if the person you are with has never had a panic attack before and may be exhibiting symptoms of a heart attack or other serious condition. In that case, call 911 and seek emergency help.

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