How not to help someone during a panic attack

How not to help someone during a panic attack

When I opened Twitter earlier this week and saw a Tumblr screenshot of how to help someone with a panic attack going around and being criticized, I wasn’t really surprised. The image mentions that, when you see someone have a panic attack, you should grab the person and give them a tight hug, whether they want it or not, and rock them back and forth. It’s a pretty great example of how not to help someone during a panic attack, and how to make matters worse.

Of course, this technique might benefit some people, although I doubt many people would feel comfortable being grabbed without consent like that, especially during a panic attack. And the Tumblr post might have been written as a joke.

But I don’t care, it’s bad and ignorant advice, that in most of the cases will do more harm than good. Something similar happened to me, a couple of years ago. It wasn’t a joke, it wasn’t helpful and in fact, I’d say it wasn’t well-intended either. It was extremely intimidating, and it left me feeling assaulted and even more anxious.

I was trying to escape a busy crowd at a concert and people were bumping into me, spilling beer everywhere end blowing cigarette smoke in my direction, and the threat of a potential asthma attack in a situation where I don’t have my medication with me, and where everyone around me was too drunk to help me, triggered my anxiety and caused a panic attack. I needed someone to tell me everything would be ok, to guide me through the crowd as safely as possible, to make some room and offer assistance. Instead, people reacted by making jokes on me, touching my back and other parts of my body, making kissing noises, creating drama and telling me I was exaggerating when I yelled at them asking not to deliberately touch me.

Sure, you might not be drunk or high, and you might have better intentions than those drunk middle-aged at the festival did, but by touching someone who’s having a panic attack, or anyone for that matter, without consent, or by not taking no for an answer, or acting forcibly or controlling, you can cause a lot of damage. Intentions don’t matter much when you’re scaring or hurting someone.

Suddenly, the person who’s having the panic attack isn’t just only dealing with the attack anymore, but also with a person who doesn’t respect their boundaries and who can potentially hurt them.

Forcibly hugging someone isn’t going to magically make a panic attack disappear, and neither is rocking someone back and forth or making humming noises in their ears. And while this is a really good example of a really bad reaction to a panic attack, there are lots of other things people do wrong when witnessing someone going through an episode. Here’s a list of things you should probably avoid.

Asking them to explain what’s going on.

They might not even know what triggered the attack, or talking about it might be too hard in the moment. Also explaining things properly can be really hard when you’re feeling anxious, so feeling like you have to give someone an explanation in the midst of a panic attack can be incredibly scary and stressful.

Telling them they’re exaggerating.

You wouldn’t tell someone experiencing a heart attack that they’re exaggerating, so don’t say it to people experiencing panic attacks either. Everyone is different, and what might seem like a big reaction to a small situation to you, might be a very reasonable reaction for someone else. People don’t choose to have panic attacks, people don’t choose to have poor mental health or choose to have gone through trauma. By telling someone they’re exaggerating, you’re invalidating their feelings, downplaying the situation, making them feel bad about themselves, and not providing any help.

Touching them.

The reason why you shouldn’t do this is hopefully pretty obvious by now. If you think someone could benefit from a hug, ask permission first. And if you can’t avoid having to touch the person, for example because they got a panic attack in a dangerous place and have to be moved to a safer spot asap, the least you can do is warn and explain to them what’s going to happen in a calm way, guide them through what’s going on, ask them to cooperate/ask them if they need help, and let them know something before you make physical contact.

Making fun of them.

This doesn’t need any explanation. If you make fun of anyone experiencing (mental) health problems, you’re an asshole.

Putting pressure on them to feel better.

People who struggle with their mental health are often already feeling bad about themselves, or feel like a burden to others. Going through a panic attack, especially in public or around people you care about, can be really scary or even make you feel ashamed. And no matter how hard you try, it can be really hard to start feeling better. Provide some actual help instead of making people feel even more stressed or responsible over their panic attack.

Telling them to calm down.

I know this one is often well-intended, and I’d say there’s a small line between doing good and doing bad with this. I’d say it’s good to emphasize that everything will be ok, that you’re looking after them and making sure they’ll be safe, that you’ll make sure nothing bad will happen, etc. It’s important to provide an environment or atmosphere where the person feels safe and has the opportunity to calm down. However, telling someone straight out to calm down is often not the best way of achieving that. If it was as easy as just calming down, anxiety and panic attacks wouldn’t be a thing. They’re probably trying to calm down or wish they could ‘just snap out of it’ as well, but it’s not as easy as that and people implying it is can be really frustrating.

Talking over them or not listening.

Whatever it is someone’s struggling with, letting them talk about it and listening to them is incredibly important. Just feeling heard, and seeing that someone cares enough to sit down with you and listen to your story, can be a huge help. The last thing you want is someone ignoring what’s on your mind and ignoring your feelings, or making the situation about themselves.

Panicking as well.

I understand this is hard, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for panicking as well. It can be scary seeing someone going through a panic attack, and feeling like you’re responsible for helping them get better can definitely be very stressful or trigger anxiety. However, it’s important for the safety and well-being of both of you to try and act calm around them or at least try to involve a third person who might be able to handle the situation better. For example, if you’re at school and your friend experiences a panic attack, it can be wise to ask someone to ask a teacher or the school therapist for assistance.

Making them feel guilty for what happened.

I get you probably had other plans than dealing with your friend’s panic attack, but it’s not their fault that it happened. I’m sure they didn’t want your night out to turn out that way either, and they probably already feel really bad about it. There’s absolutely no reason to make them feel guilty about it. That’s not going to undo what happened and is probably only going to make the atmosphere worse for everyone. Let them know it’s ok and you don’t blame them for what happened, lightened the mood a bit afterwards and make sure they’re doing ok. Don’t force them to stay out with you anyway, or don’t force them to go home if they still want to try and enjoy the rest of the day. Have a conversation together with them, listen to what they want and what’s possible, and adjust the plans as well as possible.

I’ll be making a post about all the ways you can help someone going through an anxiety or panic attack. If there’s anything that really helps you, or that you wish people would do when they see someone experience an attack, please let me know in the comments.

Cover art: mrs-araneae on Society6

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  1. This is a really good post – because like you said some people who don’t suffer from panic attacks or those who experience them differently really don’t know how to handle/help when someone they know is going through it.

    I never used to understand panic attacks, and I’ve got to say a few of these points are quite good to know, like asking them to explain for example. Saying that, last term – a bad point in my life – I’ve definitely experienced anxiety and a few panic attacks and can now totally relate to some of the points you’ve made!

    And getting it out there and spreading awareness is really key – because like you said, intentions – though sometimes good – don’t matter so much when you’re fearing for your life!

    JosieVictoriaa // Fashion, Travel & Lifestyle

  2. This is such a great post, with some really good advice! I’m so sorry you went through such an awful experience at that concert though! Too many people just don’t understand 🙁 xxx

  3. I’ve had very few panic attacks in my life but if anyone hugged me during one, it wouldn’t have ended well for them once I’d gotten through it. Unfortunately, a lot of people still aren’t sure how to react to someone having a panic attack and I think we get it all wrong the vast majority of the time. I’m awful when it comes to other people’s emotions so I tend to step back and let the person having the panic attack deal with it in their own time before ensuring they’re ok. My discomfort in the situation has taught me that sometimes, that’s the best way to deal with it.

  4. This is so helpful. It’s so easy for soemone to underestimate something they don’t understand and this article I hope will provide knowledge to those less aware. Great job.

  5. Rather weird instructions. I really don’t think touching would work for me but I guess people are different and maybe it can calm someone else. Love your explanation what not to do; super helpful post; thank you.

  6. I actually saw the tweet you’ve mentioned here doing the rounds and when I read the screenshot from Tumblr I remember thinking ‘wow, that’s terrible advice’. Thank you for elaborating more on the bad advice given for helping someone through an anxiety ‘attack’ and I look forward to reading your upcoming post for how people can help. x