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7 Ways to Support Someone Having a Panic Attack Over the Phone

I have struggled with anxiety ever since I can remember, but it wasn’t until I was 15 or so that I finally put a name to this lurking monster that constantly followed me everywhere I went. I did a few years of therapy to deal with my social anxiety, and even though it’s still there, I am able to function much better now than I used to. Unfortunately, once I got to college, I had a whole new battle to fight: panic attacks. I had them sporadically through high school, but they were not nearly as severe or constant as they would soon become at university.

Thankfully, this was the first time I didn’t have to deal with them alone. I have an incredible roommate who is also my best friend, and she has sat with me, cried with me and held me through the absolute worst of panic attacks of my life. But, it’s a little harder when we have breaks and we’re across the state from each other, not just across the room. Yet, even then it seems like she knows exactly what to do and say.

If someone calls you while they’re having a panic attack, or you find yourself on the phone with someone in the midst of one, it can feel awkward, weird and uncomfortable. Here are some things I’ve learned through my roommate doing them for me that are super helpful things to do and keep in mind:

1. Accept the silence.

Oh my gosh, this one is probably the most important. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been in the middle of a panic attack and either my roommate has called me or I’ve called her and I cannot say a word. The words just won’t come. I sit (or shake) on the other end, normally crying — and that’s all I can do. If you’re on the phone with someone who’s having a panic attack, your presence (even just on the phone) is the most important thing. The other person probably won’t be able to say anything, but please stay on the phone with them. It may feel awkward to you or you may feel like you have no idea what to say, but just knowing someone else is there means more than you could ever know.

2. Breathe with them.

I know that at least when I have panic attacks, I hyperventilate like crazy, sometimes to the point where I throw up because I cannot get enough air into my lungs and end up choking. Especially if you notice that they’re breathing really fast, tell them to take some deep breaths and then take those deep breaths with them. Even if you don’t notice their breathing change with yours immediately, just keep doing it and eventually their breathing will even out.

3. Reassure them you’re there.

They feel so alone, and probably feel so scared and even guilty for reaching out. This is one of their most vulnerable sides and having someone else see that can be terrifying. It feels like you’re going to leave, it’s just a matter of time — and that only further spirals the anxiety and panic. So, just keep telling them you’re there and you’re with them through this and you’re not leaving. You saying that means so much more than you could ever know.

4. Tell them how much you love them and encourage them.

Every lie they could possibly be believing about themselves, they’re believing. So, tell them you love them, that they’re strong for continuing to fight this, and that you’re proud of them. And then if you hear them start to cry a little harder, it’s because those words are the truth they can’t believe for themselves right now and it means the world to hear it. Even if they don’t say anything back, they’re saying thank you in their head, I promise you.

5. Say their name when you’re talking to them.

Every now and then, add in the person’s name you’re talking to into the conversation. I know that when I’m having a panic attack and I hear someone say my name before they tell me something, it means a lot. It makes me feel heard, validated, cared about and reminds me you’re here for me. It also reminds me I am not my anxiety.

6. Try a joke.

Maybe if you don’t know what to say, just talk about your day to get their mind off of their mind. I know when I first started having panic attacks, I’d call someone and just be like, “please just talk about anything, just talk.” But silence can also be really important, so just try to read the situation the best you can, or even ask them what they prefer. Maybe bring up a funny experience you guys shared, or remind them of the time you’re going to get to spend together soon. I know in the heat of panic attacks, this doesn’t do much and I kind of brush it off. But especially towards the end when I start to calm down, it can be a really good way to move from such a heavy feeling to something a little lighter.

7. However the conversation ends, know what you just did meant so much to them.

I know that sometimes when one of us ends the conversation, I still feel either so embarrassed or anxious that I can’t say everything I want to. I want to say thank you 100 times. I want to tell you why this happened. I want to tell you everything that’s running through my head at 1,000 miles a minute. Yet, I can barely mumble out a “thank you,” or “talk to you later.” Please don’t feel bad, words just aren’t my friend during those moments. But, please, please, please know what you just did means more than you could possibly know and I am so so incredibly thankful.

P.S. A huge thank you to my beautiful roommate for always being there for me.

Unsplash photo via Matthew Kane