How to help a friend who is having a panic attack

If you’ve never experienced a panic attack before, it can be hard to understand what they’re really like.

That’s why, if a friend starts having a panic attack while in your company, it’s often difficult to know how to help. 

‘​A panic attack is a description for a range of symptoms someone feels, when they suddenly feel anxious,’ Dr. Hana Patel, GP and mental health coach, tells Metro.co.uk. 

‘They include symptoms such as shaking, being unsure of where you are, nausea, a fast and irregular heartbeat, sensation of a dry mouth, feeling breathless and even feeling sweaty and dizzy.’

And mental health occupational therapist Mark McGuigan explains that, while the symptoms of a panic attack are rarely physically dangerous, they can often feel like they are – especially when their heart rate is up, or they can’t catch their breath. 

How to know if you’re having a panic attack

Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell if you – or someone else – is having a panic attack.

However, there are some symptoms you can look out for.

These include: 

  • A racing heartbeat
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Feeling that you’re losing control
  • Sweating, trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or breathing very quickly
  • A tingling in your fingers or lips
  • Feeling sick (nausea)
  • Disorientation 

If a friend is panicking, it’s vital that you stay calm, otherwise you risk worsening their symptoms. 

Try these three techniques for helping your friend through a panic attack.

The 54321 technique

Mark recommends employing the 54321 technique.

While it can be done alone, it can be extremely helpful to have someone encouraging you to remember these techniques, and talking to you, during a panic attack. 

Encourage the individual to highlight: 

5 things they can see 

4 things they can touch 

3 things they can hear 

2 things they can smell 

1 thing they can taste 

‘By doing this, they can once again focus on the “here and now” and begin to bring the panic attack, or a spike in anxiety under control,’ says Mark.

Help them with breathing exercises

‘Breathing exercises are important in a panic attack,’ says Dr Hana.

‘You could encourage someone to: breathe in as slowly, deeply and gently as they can, through their nose.

‘Then, breathe out slowly, deeply and gently through your mouth.’

It’s a good idea to do this alongside your friend, so they have someone to ground them. 

Dr Hana adds that it might also help to count the breaths out loud – breathing in for four seconds and out for six, for example.  

Remind them that their symptoms will pass

As both Mark and Dr Hana note, panic attacks, while usually physically harmless, can be extremely frightening.

‘Some patients tell me that they feel that they are “dying” or suffering a heart attack,’ says Dr Hana.

‘Whilst it can cause such dramatic and varied physical symptoms, it is important to remember that these symptoms will pass, and to try and tell your friend this and to remind them that the symptoms are due to intense anxiety.’

If a friend is starting to worry that their health is at risk, gently and empathetically remind them that the feeling will pass and it’s nothing to stress about.

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