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Please Don't Say These 8 Things to Someone Having a Panic Attack


Over the years, my panic attacks have had their ups and downs. For months I will complete daily tasks without a panic attack in sight. No anxious, negative thoughts. Just me doing my thing.

Some days, I panic at every little thing: “Did I lock the doors?” “Is my cat OK at home?” “Why is that person looking at me?” “What if I go to that area at work and mess up. I’m never in that area at work, would people question why I’ve walked into a different department?” “What if I go to that bar and I have nothing to say to new people?”

This is anxiety with OCD intrusive thoughts mixed all into one. I can push back the thinking. I can gulp down the anxious feeling in my body. (Earlier this week I discovered different people have different symptoms. Such as my friend feels sick and starts shaking, I get jelly leg, tingling in my thighs and I feel like my insides are going to drop through. I also talk needlessly, that’s the biggest give-away.)

Anyway, I’ve managed to cope recently, by talking to friends, using my coping phrases, a lot of meditation, my favorite music and taking myself away from situations when needed. Also, it helps when I write worries down and I can see how many times a day I worry about the same thing, and realize it’s not a worry; it’s my anxiety. These are some of my coping mechanisms.

I am an open book with my anxiety, if someone asks, I tell them. I have it, it’s part of me, it’s not going anywhere. I’ve had it since I was a young child. I have to learn to manage it. But over the years, I have had to deal with people being small-minded about mental health, and still in this day in age, the below phrases are thrown at me.

If a friend, family member or stranger on the street is having a panic attack, please, please do not say the following:

1. “You just need to breathe.”

Yes, yes that would be good. But right now the body is not coping and the brain is in “flight” mode. Please do not breathe in and out in the persons face like they are in labor. They are not.

2. “Calm down, it’s not a big deal. Stop being silly!”

When my panic attack has passed, I won’t think it’s a big deal but I will think about it over and over because having a panic attack outside of your home is often embarrassing to the person having one. But in that moment, the body and mind are fighting something which most of the time you can’t understand.

3. “You just need to focus and deal with your fears.”

OK sure. Just remember during a panic attack, the person tends to be “mind frozen” and sweating at the same time. There’s so much going on in the mind and body, that person probably just needs to ride it out. I was told the body only panics for 15 minutes before resetting itself and calming down. That’s my comforting thought when a panic attack happens.

4. “I didn’t realize how bad your anxiety really was.”

Please. Do. Not. Say. This. This could make someone feel so small, like they are a disappointment and they’ll likely close up from talking to you. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it makes me feel like I’ve shattered someone’s view of me, which makes me feel 100000 times worse. I can’t tell you how bad my anxiety is, it’s hard to measure. Sometimes it’s calm and I feel like I can fight the world and implement world peace and sometimes I’m texting my mum or best friend frantically because I don’t feel right. I just know at times my body alarm will go off — sometimes for no reason, sometimes it’s been triggered or sometimes I’ve woken up and something doesn’t feel right.

5. “You know what, you’re just too much.”

As the good old saying goes, “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you certainly don’t deserve me at my best.” Bye. But in all seriousness, this conversation rattles in my mind, even two years later.

6. “How did you fix yourself and get better? You’re doing so well!”

The person having the panic attack is probably not “fixed,” they probably have learned to cope well. There is no magic formula. There are no shortcuts. It’s a lot of hard work, self-care and usually a lot of patient people behind that person. Telling someone they seem like they are “fixed” makes them think you viewed them as a broken person. They are not a broken person, just a person who just sees the world little differently than you.

7. “I didn’t ask if you wanted to come because you had an episode this week. I thought you weren’t up for it.”

It’s so frustrating to hear that someone has decided if I wanted to attend an event or not — all because they are worried I am not up for it. It’s nice that they have thought about me, but also a little condescending. Speak to that person, ask them. Most of the time they’ll decide if they want to go or not. If not, talk to them about why they can’t decide, they could be worrying about something you could help with.

8. “Have you taken your meds?”

Just don’t go there. It’s personal, and intrusive to ask. 

Unsplash photo via Clem Onojeghuo