Psychologist Reveals What You Need To Know If You See Someone Having A Panic Attack

Panic attacks are one of the more scary, and yet mysterious, symptoms of anxiety. The US Department of Health and Human Services describes panic disorder as a type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by physical symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and what they euphemistically call "abdominal distress." The one thing about panic attacks that makes them so hard to understand is that they may seem to come out of the blue, and it's difficult (if not impossible) to predict just when they will happen — the word HHS uses is "unexpected."

If you've ever been around someone in the throes of a panic attack, you may not have any idea what to do, and it's quite possible you'll start to feel a bit panicky yourself. Do you call an ambulance? Offer them a glass of water or a cup of tea? Hold their hand? Give them space? These are excellent questions, and should you happen to know anyone subject to panic attacks (or perhaps be prone to these yourself), it's important to learn as much as you can ahead of time about what's going on during these frightening episodes. In order to get some insight, The List spoke with Meghan Marcum, Psy.D., the chief psychologist at treatment center A Mission for Michael, and she offered the following tips for how you can best be of assistance when someone is having a panic attack.

Take them to a safe spot

One of the first things you can do for a panicking person involves helping them to get to a better space — not emotionally, at least not at first, but a better physical space in which they can be out of the way of prying eyes. Marcum says anyone experiencing a panic attack needs to get to "a quiet place free from distractions," since, as she explains, "panic attacks are representative of severe anxiety, so reducing the stimuli around them can help initiate a more calm state." 

If there is a private room, perhaps an office or even a deserted bathroom, such a space might work, or you could utilize an outdoor location if weather permits. In a pinch, you could even sit with the person in their (or your) car.

Remind them to breathe deep

Cliché though it may be, "take a deep breath" is actually some of the best advice you can offer a panicking person. Marcum says that, "Usually, people start to hyperventilate during a panic attack," so she says you should ask the person to breathe slowly in through their nose and then out through their mouth. This breathing technique actually helps to create more nitric oxide, which has the effect of increasing blood flow to the body's organs. 

Marcum says if the panicking person is able to take several slow, deep breaths, "it will allow blood pressure to start to drop."

Ask them what they need

Marcum points out that panic attacks are different for each person. Not only the triggers but also the symptoms will vary from one individual to another, and maybe even from one attack to another in the case of persons who experience such attacks on a regular basis. She advises you to ask the person what they might like you to do — could they use that glass of water, would they care for a breath of fresh air, or would they prefer that you stay with them until the attack passes?

If the answer to this last question is something along the lines of "No! Go away!," you might want to back away out of their space, but don't go too far so that you can still keep an eye on them in case that "fight or flight" feeling they're experiencing takes a turn for the dangerous that might have them, say, running out into traffic. At that point, you may need to intervene whether they wish it or not.

Check on their meds

While not every person experiencing a panic attack is already under treatment for anxiety or any other physical or mental health issue, there's a chance that they could be, and, as Marcum notes, "Sometimes people forget they have medication prescribed for these [panic] situations." Even if the medication is for another condition entirely, it's also possible that the physical symptoms it's meant to alleviate could be causing or contributing to the sense of panic. 

Check with the person to see if they have any medication that they might be in need of and offer to go and get it for them if they don't have it at hand.

Keep calm

Laughter may be infectious, but panic is downright contagious. Should you be witness to someone else's meltdown, there's a good chance you'll be feeling quite a bit of anxiety yourself. Try as hard as you can to keep a grip on yourself no matter what happens. Remind yourself that panic attacks themselves aren't life-threatening and that they also don't tend to last too long, generally subsiding within 20 minutes (and sometimes as few as five). Marcum says that, "By modeling a sense of calmness, you will help promote a relaxing environment that can be soothing to a person in a state of panic."

While it may not be the easiest thing to do, the steps to deal with a panicking person are simple enough: Stay calm, stay alert, and stay on guard, whether you're right by their side or at a respectful distance. It may be the longest 20 minutes of your life, but if you can do these things, you'll be a hero whether or not anyone ever acknowledges it. When it comes to panic attacks and other mental health issues, we are all each other's keeper, since there's always a chance it could happen to you, and we all deserve to have someone standing by in our time of need.