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A Shoulder to Lean On: How to Comfort a Friend During a Panic Attack

Updated: 5 days ago

Panic attacks. They're real, they happen, and talking about them is important. 

Okay, so you are going through your daily routine as usual, ticking off chores, brewing yourself a comforting cup of tea, and then, out of nowhere, you're hit with this overwhelming sense of fear and discomfort. It’s not easy to talk about it. But, having an open conversation about panic attacks can help shed some light on what they're all about and how we can support each other through them. 

If you're here because you've found yourself supporting a friend or colleague through one, first of all, kudos to you for being an amazing friend. You're already making a positive difference by seeking to understand and help.

So, what exactly is a panic attack, and how is it different from an anxiety attack? 

Let's take a moment to understand: Now, let's rewind to how this blog started. Imagine this scenario - you're going about your day, everything seems normal, and then, out of the blue, you're stuck with tension, anxiety, and panic. Your heart races, your palms sweat, and it feels like the world is closing in around you.

That, my friend, is a panic attack. Now, let's clear up a common misconception: panic attacks and anxiety attacks are not the same thing. While they share some similarities, like intense feelings of fear or worry, panic attacks typically come on suddenly and reach their peak within minutes. On the other hand, anxiety attacks tend to build up over time and may not be as intense.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM), panic attacks are characterized by a sudden onset of intense fear or discomfort, peaking within minutes. These episodes are typically accompanied by four or more specific physical symptoms. They can happen frequently, occurring several times a day, or rarely, with only a few attacks per year.

So, what can you do to help when someone you care about is having a panic attack?

First and foremost, just be there. Your presence alone can be incredibly comforting. Remind them that you're right there beside them and that they're not alone in this. Reassure them that what they're experiencing is temporary and that it will pass. Encouraging deep breathing can also help. Try taking slow, deep breaths together, counting to four as you inhale and exhale. It might sound simple, but focusing on their breath can help ground them in the present moment and ease some of the physical symptoms of panic.

Now, let's talk about self-soothing techniques. Here are some tools your friends can use to calm themselves during a panic attack. Among the most effective methods is progressive muscle relaxation, known for its ability to ease tension. Start by tensing and then slowly releasing each muscle group in the body, starting from the toes and working your way up to the head. It's like giving yourself a mini massage and can help release tension and reduce anxiety.

Other self-soothing techniques include visualization, where you imagine yourself in a peaceful, calming place, and mindfulness meditation, where you focus on the present moment without judgment. Of course, it's also important to understand what can trigger a panic attack in the first place. Stress, genetics, and certain medical conditions can all play a role. Keep an eye out for common symptoms like rapid heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, or feeling detached from reality. Panic attacks can vary in severity, from mild to severe. Mild panic attacks may be manageable and not interfere significantly with daily life, while severe panic attacks can be debilitating and may require medical intervention. 

When it comes to supporting someone through a panic attack, there are a few dos and don'ts to keep in mind.

Do stay calm and reassuring, encourage deep breathing and other self-soothing techniques, and seek medical help if necessary. Don't minimize their experience or make judgments, don't force them to confront their fears, and don't leave them alone during a panic attack.

You're truly making a difference by being there for someone during a panic attack. Your support and empathy can be so comforting during such moments of distress. Also, emphasize how important it is for your friend to seek help from licensed mental health professionals who specialize in panic attacks. They can provide specialized guidance and support tailored to your friend's needs, which can make a huge difference in the long run. Seeking professional help is key to their overall well-being and recovery journey.

Seeking mental health assistance is crucial for long-term well-being and recovery. Together, mental health service providers can offer unwavering support to your friends as they navigate through this challenging time. Your friendship, coupled with professional assistance, can make a significant difference in their journey towards healing and managing panic attacks effectively. Let's continue to stand by our friend and prioritize their mental health every step of the way.

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