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6 Ways to Be Helpful During My Panic Attacks

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Anyone who’s had a full-blown panic attack knows what a truly terrifying experience it can be. That sense of impending doom? I’ve felt it. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like I’m going to die. It’s not rational, but even when I know it’s not rational it doesn’t help. The symptoms are too overpowering. I’ve literally felt stress coursing through my veins – increasing my heart rate, making me sweat and creating a nauseating pit in the bottom of my stomach.

But while going through a panic attack is horrible, watching someone you care about in the throes of one can make you feel totally helpless.

Here are some things I know help me:

1. Ask me if you can sit and ride it out with me.

Not everyone will want someone to witness their vulnerability, but personally I find it’s comforting when a friend or family member stays with me. For me, being alone when I feel like I’m going to die only makes the fear worse. Knowing someone’s there helps me regain the power anxiety robs from me.

2. Ask me what I’m experiencing — then ask if there’s anything you can do to help. 

When I internalize all my anxious energy, it can potentially make my panic attack worse. If I can identify what’s triggered the attack, it can help. Then, once I’m talking, ask me what I need — maybe I need my medication or even glass of water. Helping me go through breathing techniques can also make a huge difference.

3. Validate that my experience is real.

One of the most frustrating things is when people minimize the experience of a panic attack. Telling someone to “just calm down” is one of the most counterproductive things a person can say. Some things you can say that may be more helpful include: “You’re doing a great job,” “I’m here for you,” and “We’ll get through this together.”

4. Add humor to the situation if possible.

They say laughter is the best medicine, and that’s true for me. Even when I’m extremely upset, a well-timed joke can add just enough levity to help calm me down. This may not work for everyone, but it can be helpful when used appropriately. Obviously I don’t want you to make fun of my panic attack. Remaining sensitive while being humorous is key.

5. Distract me with personal stories, creature comforts and/or favorite activities.

Distraction can turn my attention away from anxious thoughts. The more personalized that distraction is, the more likely it is to help. If you can, talk about a special experience we’ve shared, turn on my favorite music or TV show or get me something you know comforts me. Different people have different “comfort items,” like pets, stuffed animals, heated blankets or tea.

6. If you’re helping me, keep yourself calm.

The only thing worse than one person panicking is two. I can feed off your energy, so the calmer you can remain, the easier it’ll be for me to calm myself.

Panic attacks can be scary for both the person experiencing them and their loved ones, but knowing how to appropriately comfort a person who’s panicking can make a big difference. Your willingness to be there shows that person they’re not alone — and that can help the world feel a little less frightening.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with a mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: November 17, 2015
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