6 things to say when someone is having a panic attack

It’s hard living with irritating mental health issues which can disrupt what is otherwise a fun occasion. It’s also hard having to be witness to these issues when you really don’t have much of a clue what to say or do. Here are my top six things to say to someone who is suffering a panic attack.

“Are you panicking?”

I once took a First Aid course where I was told that the first thing to establish when you think someone might be choking is to ask, “Are you choking?” It might seem a bit of a daft question, given that if the answer is in the affirmative, they won’t be able to answer you. However, it’s good to ascertain what’s going on before you try and do anything – someone could be panicking or they could just be having a wobbly few seconds. Likewise, someone could be choking or they could just be laughing at a joke. It’s best to find out before you start punching them in the spine.

“Come and sit down.”

When someone is panicking, they won’t have much of a clue what’s going on around them. If they look pale or start looking like they’re going to faint, get them to a chair as soon as you can. If possible, make it somewhere quiet where there aren’t many people around but the main aim is to stop them from face-planting into the carpet.

“Sod off.”

This is for the people around the person who is panicking, rather than the person themselves. When someone has a panic attack, chances are around 80% of the people around them will do nothing but stare. This is the same for when someone faints, vomits or generally disrupts the conversation with weird health-related behaviour. I’m not really sure what causes people to stand and gawp at a stranger in the street when they’re clearly in need of assistance but nonetheless this will happen a lot. Unfortunately, it can go a long way to making the person in distress feel worse so it’s good if you can find a way to limit spectators as much as possible.

Don’t actually say “sod off”, of course, just politely ask if people wouldn’t mind backing away or going somewhere else. Unless they reply with “I’m this person’s family member/best friend/partner”, “I’m a doctor” or “Hey, this is my house!”, they should hopefully understand.

A good way of getting rid of people who are flapping around and generally being a bit of a nuisance is to tell them to go and fetch something. Tissues, water, a paper bag, anything. These things might all be useful for the person who is panicking, but the main point is to get other people to go away. It’s humiliating enough suffering a panic attack in public without everyone around you hovering awkwardly.

“Everything’s going to be fine.”

When someone has a panic attack, they can genuinely believe they’re going to die so some gentle reassurance can really help them. While it might be totally obvious to you that the sky is, in fact, still intact, it might not be so obvious to them. Speak quietly and let them know that everything’s all right.

“Breathe slowly.”

The irritating thing about having a panic attack is that your body decides to team up with your mind and goes, “Ha HA, now you’re going to feel even worse!” Hyperventilating limits the amount of oxygen getting to the brain and makes you panic more so if you can try and stop the person from doing this too much, it’ll definitely help. When they look as though they might be able to listen to you, ask them to take one breath in as slowly as they can and then release it in the same way. This is where the paper bag genuinely comes in handy, if you’ve got one. Once they’ve taken a few deep breaths in, they’ll start to feel better even if they don’t look better.

“How’re you doing?”

When they look a bit calmer, ask them how they are feeling. Hopefully, they’ll be able to give you a straight answer but if not, they might need a few minutes more. When someone starts panicking, it’s tempting to want to ask lots of questions but I’d say this would be the most important thing to ask. If you ask them what they want or what you should do to help, they’ll feel bad for not being able to respond properly and it might take them longer to calm down.

One question which comes up a lot is “Do you want me to leave you alone?” If someone is panicking and they don’t want you there, they’ll likely leave the area or tell you straight out to leave them alone. If they don’t do either of these things, there’s no need to worry that your company is making them worse. Being polite is not usually high on the agenda when you can’t breathe, so you can trust the person to be honest (if a bit abrupt).

This is mostly based on my personal experience so over to you – anything you’d suggest for people who are panicking? Has anyone come to your rescue when you’ve been totally out of it? Let me know in the comments.

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