Panic attacks can be incredibly scary for those experiencing them and others around them. Panic attacks often mirror the symptoms of a heart attack, so someone experiencing one may feel like they are dying or in great danger. Additionally, someone experiencing a panic attack is likely to feel an immense sense of dread or fear and may feel like they are going “crazy.”
If you notice someone is having a panic attack, try to approach the situation calmly and with empathy. Calming down from a panic attack is easier said than done, but understanding the signs and symptoms can help you support someone having a panic attack.
Signs of a Panic Attack
The first step in knowing how to help someone having a panic attack is knowing the signs of one. Panic attacks can occur in stressful or scary situations.
However, panic attacks often occur when there is no tangible threat to the person experiencing it. Nonetheless, they can be scary, especially if you’ve never experienced one before.
When having one, you may experience any of the following symptoms or signs of a panic attack:
- Rapid or racing pulse
- Feeling weak, faint or dizzy
- Numbness or tingling in the arms, legs or extremities
- An inexplicable sense of terror, impending doom or imminent death
- Sweating or chills
- Chest tightness or pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Feeling a loss of control
Note that all of the above symptoms do not have to be present for someone to experience a panic attack, but a combination of symptoms is usually a sign.
From an outside perspective, a panic attack can look like any combination of the following:
- Hyperventilation or shortness of breath
If the person expresses any of the following feelings, they may be having a panic attack:
- Feelings of terror or dread
- Fear they are losing control or going “crazy”
- Feeling like they are having a heart attack
Panic attacks can happen at any time and usually occur suddenly without any warning. A sudden shift in mood or behavior coupled with a few other symptoms can signal that someone is having or will have a panic attack.
How Long Can a Panic Attack Last?
Panic attacks usually last around 10 minutes, although the duration is specific to each person. Some people have reported panic attacks that last around an hour, but it is less common. Someone having a panic attack for the first time may have a more prolonged panic attack, as they will need more time to realize what is happening to them and that they are not under any real threat.
Many people have a panic attack just once or twice throughout their lifetime. However, some people may experience panic attacks weekly. Frequent attacks are common in people with anxiety and panic disorders. Additionally, biological, situational & lifestyle factors can all contribute to someone having panic attacks more frequently.
How to Calm Someone Down From a Panic Attack
If you notice someone is having a panic attack, the best thing you can do to help them is to remain calm. Remaining calm can help the person feel comforted and reduce feelings of danger. Talking to the person slowly and calmly can help.
That said, some people experiencing a panic attack may prefer not to be spoken to, so you may need to play it by ear. If the person seems more agitated or asks you to stop talking, you can help them by remaining by their side quietly.
What to Say
Knowing what to say to someone having a panic attack can be tricky. In general, expressing the following sentiments can help someone having a panic attack:
- Ensuring them that you won’t leave
- Reminding them they are safe
- Reminding them that the attack likely won’t last long
Actionable words can also help. People experiencing panic attacks often feel they are losing control and may not know what to do to help themselves. Having someone gently take charge of the situation can help them feel more at ease. Some ways you can help include:
- Asking if they’d like to leave the room or setting and go somewhere else
- Remind them to keep breathing
- Engage in light conversation if they are receptive to it
You can also ask the person how you can help them. Many people with anxiety have developed coping mechanisms that can help them calm down. But remember that people experiencing a panic attack can be agitated, so don’t feel defensive if you get a short or harsh response from them.
It can also help to ask someone what you can do for them before a panic attack occurs, as they may have trouble expressing their needs during a panic attack.
The most important thing you can do knowing how to help someone having a panic attack is to be present with them. Respond to the situation with compassion, and understand that the panic attack may not make sense to you or the person experiencing it, but it is very real nonetheless. Acting as a grounding force for someone having a panic attack can have a greater effect than it might seem.