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5 Things You Shouldn't Say to Someone Having a Panic Attack

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As someone who has dealt with anxiety for as long as I can remember, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing all of the different verbal reactions people have towards my meltdowns. Contrary to the popular rhyme, words can hurt, especially when my mind and emotions are already in turmoil.

But I know that not everyone has anxiety, so reacting to someone in the midst of a panic attack is probably hard to deal with. So, I’ve taken some of the most popular reactions I’ve gotten to my panic attacks and tried to explain how they make me feel worse, even when you may be trying to help.

1. Don’t say, “Stop being so dramatic.”

I hear, “You’re just looking for attention.”

Instead try, “That would be scary if it happened. Would it make you feel better if you had a backup plan, just in case?”

Look, I know that most of the time, my thoughts and fears are so over the top that the scenarios my mind develops aren’t even likely to turn up in a science fiction film. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. That doesn’t mean that the thoughts and feelings aren’t real. In my mind, I need to plan for each and every possibility. Doing so is the only way to make me feel the tiniest bit better. Sometimes, I need someone with a “normal-paced” mind to help me create back up plans for even the most out of this world scenarios so I can breathe a bit easier.

2. Don’t say, “There are people dealing with much worse.”

I hear, “You are so selfish!”

Instead try, “Try to keep things in perspective …”

I know that in the grand scheme of things, potential terrible weather on my vacation is nothing compared to people dealing with house fires, floods, life-threatening illnesses, bankruptcy, debilitating car accidents, etc. I know that things could always be worse — I’ve probably conjured up every “worse” possibility in my mind already. But try to understand that something that may be a minor setback or minor irritation for a “normal” person could be heartbreaking or devastating for me. Many times, people with anxiety have “all or nothing” thoughts and feelings — if something isn’t perfect, we fear it will be a total disaster. There is no “mediocre” for us. And if this perfect vacation, wedding or Christmas party doesn’t happen, we fear that it will turn into a total debacle. While this view may be hard for someone without anxiety to grasp, it is absolutely a valid feeling for someone who does struggle with anxiety.

3. Don’t say, “There’s no use worrying about it.”

I hear, “Your thoughts and feelings are not valid.”

Instead try, “I can see why that would worry you. Try occupying your mind and your day with positive things.”

I know there’s no point in worrying about it, just like I know the sky is infinite. But that doesn’t mean I can comprehend it. There is no magic switch on my brain that turns the worry button off. If there was, I wouldn’t be writing this. When something is worrying me, it is literally all-consuming. Sometimes I can’t eat, can’t sleep or concentrate at work. Usually, the only thing that makes it better is if I’m occupied with something totally unrelated, like a funny movie or a day trip, or even a riveting conversation about something else — anything else — other than what is bothering me. If you can provide any of those things, you can help ease my mind. Because a lot of times, I can’t do it on my own.

4. Don’t ever say, “What is wrong with you?”

I hear, “What is wrong with you? Are you ‘crazy?’”

Instead say, “Are you OK?”

Think about it — if someone asked you, under any circumstance, “What is wrong with you?”— how would you feel? Insecure? Offended? Hurt? Self-conscious? Embarrassed? Out of place?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Now magnify that by a thousand. All of those feelings are already coursing through my mind and body each time a panic attack sets in. I already know my mind and emotions don’t function properly. I know there’s something different about me that makes things harder to deal with. I know people around me can see it and feel it, even when I try to hide it. When you ask “what is wrong with you,” it’s like you’ve propped me up on a pedestal in the middle of a shopping mall, set off fireworks, turned on a spotlight, and unfurled a banner declaring “Watch this person have a total meltdown over an everyday occurrence!”

Think of it this way: if you saw a person out in public with an obvious physical medical condition, would you stop them on the sidewalk, peer at them inquisitively and shout, “What is wrong with you?!”


So why do it to someone who has an obvious mental condition?

5. Once the panic attack is over, don’t say, “Was all that worrying worth it?”

I hear, “You’re a total idiot for thinking/feeling the way you did or being scared.”

Instead try, “I’m so glad things worked out for you.”

This is quite possibly the worst part of a panic attack, especially when my fears turn out to be unfounded. I already deal with the embarrassment and ridicule of everyone witnessing my worst moments, but when everything ends up working out, or my anxiety turned out to be over something that was no big deal, hearing these words is salt in the wound.
The words “worth it” indicate some sort of reward after hard work. While worrying is certainly a lot of hard work, the embarrassment that follows the worrying is never, ever worth it. And there is NEVER a reward. Hearing someone say this is a slap in the face. To me, you’re just validating my distorted thought process that I am “stupid” and my thoughts or feelings were not important — which is in no way helpful.

I hope that reading this has shed some light on what it’s like to have a panic attack, and hopefully, you’ll be able to help someone through one in the future.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

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Getty Images photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Originally published: February 7, 2018
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