How to help someone undergoing a panic attack

It is not uncommon for some people to view panic attacks as a relatively trivial problem, and that all that is required is for people to ‘pull themselves together’. However, panic attacks are a major problem for lots of people and can lead to serious consequences for their quality of life.

When attacks are intense and recurrent, they may lead to a panic disorder, which involves persistent worry that another attack is coming, and/or avoidance of certain everyday situations in an attempt to limit the possibility of an attack. At its most extreme it can lead to being housebound for decades.

It’s very normal to feel helpless when you see someone you care about having a panic attack, but just being a strong, steady presence and reassuring him or her that it will pass after a while is a pretty good place to start in offering support.

The important message for someone suffering from panic attacks is that the symptoms themselves are not a sign of anything harmful. In order to get over a panic attack it is crucial to understand that the physical symptoms (such as heart pounding, shortness of breath, feeling sick and having sensations of tingling and numbness), whilst very scary and worrying, are pretty much the same as the symptoms experienced when very excited or angry. They are all a very normal part of the "flight or fight" response that we all experience when in a situation of real or perceived danger. However, in a panic attack, these symptoms seem to come about totally 'out of the blue' and can also occur from non-threatening situations, even whilst sleeping.

That is why experiencing these physical symptoms can be extremely alarming, especially when they come about quite suddenly and unexpected. With panic attacks, there might also be a sense of absolute dread that something really horrible is going to happen. Given the physical symptoms, the fear can be that one is about to have a heart attack or stroke.

Panic attacks are different to having general worries about finances, job security or one’s relationship, which is what we all experience at some point at varying levels, but which can also be involved with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

If the symptoms don’t go away then some form of intervention will be needed. Your GP will help with the diagnosis if there is concern about anything more sinister. Your GP can also advise on the latest suggestions from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines for treatment. NICE provides national guidance and advice to medical doctors to help improve health and social care outcomes and is what GPs typically refer to when assessing whether you might need medication or therapy, or both.

Therapy can help by reviewing lifestyle choices, learning coping skills, implementing relaxation techniques and re-engaging with the outside world. Panic attacks can instil terrifying fear, and when they become persistent, they can also lead to other issues that can have serious implications on quality of life such as drug abuse, the development of phobias, depression, alcoholism and medical complications.

A support group comprising of others who also suffer from the condition could be considered and, whilst it probably should not take the place of one to one therapy, it could represent a beneficial addition to the process.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a counsellor/psychotherapist based in London who has spent the past 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural (CBT), humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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