What you can do to help someone who's having a panic attack.

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’ll know that it’s one of the most awful things a human can experience.

If you haven’t, it’s hard to know what it feels like. And if someone you love frequently experiences panic attacks, or you suspect that they’re having their first one, it’s difficult to know what to do.

That’s why we’ve put together a step-by-step guide on how to help someone who’s having a panic attack – because the last thing the person you’re trying to help needs is for you to panic, too.

Step 1: Keep calm.

It can be frightening and upsetting to see a friend or family member out of their mind with panic. You might feel helpless or scared, and that’s pretty normal. But in order to help them calm down, you need to be calm – so take three long, deep breaths and steady yourself before you do anything else, and focus on being measured and predictable.

Keeping calm makes all the difference. (iStock)

Step 2: Know the signs. 

A panic attack is what happens when an overwhelming fear or anxiety manifests physically. Symptoms can include chest pain, trouble breathing, a racing heart and sweating. Panic attacks can be brought on by a single, intensely stressful event, or can occur as a culmination of a long period of stress and anxiety. The effects of a panic attack are often worsened by drug and alcohol use.

Important note: The symptoms of a panic attack can often mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. Panic attacks can also exacerbate symptoms of diabetes and asthma. If you're not sure if the person you're with is at risk, it's always safer to calmly call an ambulance.

Step 3: Break the "cycle of panic". 

If a person has never had a panic attack before, they might mistake the symptoms for something more serious (like a heart attack or stroke). This can lead to what's called a "cycle of panic", where a person's anxiety multiplies when they can't identify the source of their symptoms.

To break the "cycle of panic", speak calmly and slowly to your friend, emphasising:

  • They're not in any danger
  • The panic attack will soon pass

Keep reaffirming the short-lived nature of a panic attack: it might feel like the end of the world now, but it will go away soon. (Post continues after gallery.)


Step 4: Ask them what they need. 

If you're dealing with someone who's had a panic attack before, they might know better than you what they need to do. It's possible they have anti-anxiety medication they need to take, in which case, make sure they take it straight away.

If the person doesn't know what they need, or panics when asked, reassure them that it's okay and move on to the next step.

Step 5: Get them comfortable.

If possible, have your friend lie down on a bed or the couch. If not, make sure they're sitting down in a quiet place where nobody will interrupt. Either way, you want them to be comfortable. Ask them to close their eyes if they're okay doing so, but don't touch them without permission, which can exacerbate anxiety.

If the person experiencing the attack refuses to sit still, another option is to take them on a brisk walk.

Step 6: Ask them to breathe slowly and deeply. 

Deep breathing helps relax the mind and body, and gives your friend something to concentrate on other than panic. A good trick is to ask them to breathe in through their nose for a count of four, then out through their mouth for a count of four - it encourages measures breathing and forces the person to focus on counting.

Get your friend as comfortable as possible. (iStock)

Step 7: Distract them. 

The best distractions are ones they can do with their eyes closed, so you might choose to do any of the following:

  • Ask them to count backwards from 100
  • Tell them a story
  • Put on an audiobook or podcast (ideally something the person likes)
  • Discuss a happy memory with them, encouraging them to join in

Step 8: Wait for it to pass.

There's no "normal" amount of time for a panic attack to last, but they do always end eventually. If you need to leave at any point, try to station another trusted friend to keep watch and keep distracting the person experiencing the panic attack. Resist the urge to ask about the cause of the panic attack when the person appears to be calming down - the last thing you want is to trigger another attack.

Step 9: Encourage them to seek medical help.

Like any mental health issue, anxiety attacks can be prevented with proper intervention (and sometimes medication). Your friend might benefit from seeing a counsellor, a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but a trusted GP is a great place to start.

Make sure you:

  • Wait until 24 hours after the attack to raise the issue of medical help
  • Frame medical help in a positive way, rather than a negative one
  • Share stories of other people you know who've worked through panic attacks with doctors

If you need extra support, call Lifeline 24/7 on 13 11 14.