If you aren’t familiar with what an anxiety or panic attack feels like firsthand, it can be frightening to watch someone you care about suffer from one.
Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to make them feel more comfortable and safe if you happen to be around them when the attack occurs. Here are four of the most effective ways to reassure and comfort someone having an anxiety or panic attack.
1. Get them to a safe, quiet place as soon as possible.
For most anxiety sufferers, our attacks are sometimes triggered and often exacerbated by being somewhere loud, overwhelming, and chaotic. The sensory overload of a crowded shopping mall, bus stop, movie theater, or really anywhere in public with large crowds of people can be frightening for a person with an anxiety disorder.
If you notice your loved one starting to show symptoms of an oncoming anxiety/panic attack, don’t panic with them or overreact, but don’t belittle or criticize them, either. Understand that people with anxiety can’t always control how they react to a triggering situation.
Try to be a comforting, reassuring presence they can redirect their attention to until you can both get somewhere quiet where they can ride out the worst of the panic attack without drawing in attention from strangers that will only upset them even more. Remind them to do some breathing exercises as you both move to a calmer, less overwhelming location.
Once you’ve both relocated to a quieter area, calmly ask them if they need anything, like something to drink or a comfortable spot to lie down for a few minutes. It helps to establish a code word or words in advance for them to use when they feel an attack coming on so you can react quickly and appropriately, as it is often difficult for people with anxiety disorders to communicate effectively during a panic attack.
2. Guide them through a breathing exercise.
After relocating to a quiet place, suggest that you do some breathing exercises together to help calm the person down, even if the worst of the attack has subsided for the time being. I mentioned in my last post about coping skills for anxiety attacks that the 4-7-8 method works great for me personally, and I highly recommend it to anyone with an anxiety disorder.
As a quick refresher if you haven’t seen that post, the 4-7-8 breathing exercise works like this:
Exhale through your mouth completely.
Breathe in through your nose for four seconds.
Hold your breath for seven seconds.
Breathe out through your mouth for eight seconds.
Repeat as many times as necessary.
If the person is still too overwhelmed to count the seconds and keep track of how long their inhales and exhales are, simply encouraging them to take slow, deep breaths can still be very helpful.
Shortness of breath is pretty typical during an anxiety/panic attack, and consciously focusing on regulating breathing will help the person slowly calm themselves down until they are able to better communicate their needs and how they’re feeling.
3. Reassure them that the anxiety/panic attack is only temporary.
Even though most panic attacks only last around 10 to 30 minutes at most, as I mentioned in my other recent post on this topic, they can feel like forever to a person having an attack. It is common for people with anxiety to get locked into a negative thought spiral, also known as catastrophic thinking or catastrophizing.
Never minimize the person’s symptoms, mock them, or criticize them for overreacting; they are probably already well aware they are reacting to their anxiety in a way that isn’t typical, but it feels valid and real to them in the moment.
Instead, calmly and quietly reassure them that the attack will be over soon and you’re there for them if they need anything. Remind them that they aren’t in any real danger, no matter how scary and overwhelming the anxiety/panic attack feels.
4. Stay with them until the attack subsides.
For me, as someone with panic disorder, it helps a lot just to have someone I care about near me when I’m having a panic attack. Even if they aren’t sure how to react or don’t understand how I’m feeling, just knowing they care and are willing to help me can greatly minimize the scary side effects of the attack.
Stay by your loved one’s side until their anxiety/panic attack has ended, and offer to engage in a calming, therapeutic activity with them afterward to help replenish their energy; suggest going for a walk, art therapy, or even just relaxing and watching TV with them for a little while.
Anxiety attacks are both mentally and physically exhausting, so self-care after an attack is essential to minimizing any residual stress. Simply having someone to vent to and decompress with without fear of judgement or ridicule is a valuable comfort for anyone with an anxiety disorder.