Witnessing someone you care about experiencing a panic or anxiety attack can be a frightening and stressful situation. Their fear and discomfort can be contagious, leaving you unsure of how to best support them. But remember, a little knowledge and a lot of compassion can go a long way in helping them weather the storm.

This article will equip you with the tools to recognize the signs of panic and anxiety attacks, and provide practical tips for offering effective support in each situation.

How to Recognize When Someone is Having a Panic or Anxiety Attack (And Tell the Differences)

While both panic attacks and anxiety attacks involve feelings of worry and fear, they have some key distinctions. Being able to tell the difference will help you better assist someone in the middle of an attack.

  • Panic attacks are sudden and intense, reaching peak intensity within minutes. Anxiety attacks, on the other hand, typically build gradually over time.
  • Panic attacks are generally much more severe than anxiety attacks. People experiencing a panic attack may feel like they're losing control or even dying. Anxiety attacks are less intense but can still be very distressing.
  • Panic attacks can sometimes occur seemingly out of the blue, while anxiety attacks are often triggered by a specific stressor or situation.

The easiest way to distinguish between a panic attack and an anxiety attack is to calmly ask the person, "Do you know if something specific triggered this experience? Just nod your head for yes or no." This question can help determine whether the episode is more likely a panic attack (usually no identifiable trigger) or an anxiety attack (often a specific trigger).

Gently inform them that you believe they might be experiencing a panic or anxiety attack, and that it's good news because there is something we can do about it to return to a normal state.

Very often, in the midst of an attack, we are clueless about what is happening and imagine the worst. By logically understanding what is happening and reassuring them of your presence and support until the attack passes, the process of returning to calmness will be faster and more effective.

Get to know about: Nose Breathing vs. Mouth Breathing: Benefits and Techniques

What to Do in the Case of a Panic Attack

You might have gotten a hint of the nature of the attack thanks to the previous tips. In the case of a panic attack, here are five practical tips to help someone.

Tip 1: Stay Calm and Reassuring

Your calmness can be a good anchor and source of stability during a frightening experience. Speak in a gentle, soothing voice and let them know you're there for them.

Tip 2: Create a Safe Space

If possible, move them to a quiet, well-lit place where they can sit or lie down comfortably. Avoid crowded or stimulating environments.

Tip 3: Focus on Breathwork

Help them slow their breathing by guiding them through a simple exercise like inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds. If you have a live biofeedback wearable, like Oxa, nearby, engage in a guided breathwork session.  

Tip 4: Avoid Harsh Reassurance

Don't tell them to "calm down" or "it's nothing" or even a simple "Why are you acting like that?" These statements can be dismissive and minimize their experience.

Tip 5: Offer Practical Assistance

Do they need water? Would they like a cool cloth for their face? Focus on small ways to make them feel more comfortable. Listen and provide.

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What to Do in the Case of an Anxiety Attack

 In the case of an anxiety attack, here are five practical tips to help someone.

Tip 1: Listen Without Judgment

Let them express their worries and anxieties without interruption. Validate their feelings and offer emotional support.

Tip 2: Identify the Trigger

If possible, help them identify the situation or stressor that triggered the anxiety attack. This can be helpful in future prevention strategies. Use the mirror technique by repeating what they just told you using simpler words.

Tip 3: Practice Relaxation Techniques

Guide them through calming activities like progressive muscle relaxation or simple box breathing (inhale for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for a count of 4, and hold for 4). Don't force them to breathe if they don't want to. Techniques like counting backwards from 100 can also be helpful distractions.

Tip 4: Encourage Grounding Techniques

In the moment, grounding techniques can help bring their focus to the present and reduce anxiety. Ask them to describe five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste.

Tip 5: Suggest Professional Help 

If anxiety attacks are frequent or severe, encourage them to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor. These professionals can provide therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is particularly effective for managing anxiety disorders. Additionally, a psychiatrist can assess whether medication may be helpful in managing severe symptoms. 

Also Read: Oxa Podcast. Episode #4. Ryan Carroll: Breathing Anxiety Away

Empowering Your Loved Ones with Oxa

While these tips can be a helpful starting point, remember that everyone experiences anxiety and panic attacks differently. The most important thing is to be patient, supportive, and offer help in a way that feels comfortable for them.

Oxa wearable can be a valuable tool to complement your support and empower them to manage their anxiety on their own. By providing real-time biofeedback on their breathing patterns, Oxa guides them towards achieving resonance breathing, a technique scientifically shown to activate the relaxation response and combat anxiety.

FAQs

Q: Should I force someone having an anxiety or panic attack to breathe?

No, forcing them can increase their anxiety. If they can't focus on deep breathing, suggest grounding techniques instead, but never force them.

Q: Can I leave someone alone during a panic attack?

It's best to stay with them unless they specifically ask to be alone. Your presence can be a source of comfort and security. Imagine if it were you: you would want someone reassuring you.

Q: Should I call emergency services during a panic attack?

Not necessarily. If the person's symptoms are severe, they have trouble breathing, or chest pain that doesn't improve with rest, call emergency services. Otherwise, focus on calming techniques.

Q:  What if the person experiencing anxiety seems angry or irritable?

Anxiety can manifest in different ways. Stay calm yourself and avoid taking their words personally. Focus on offering support and listening without judgment.

Hakima Tantrika
Published:
June 26, 2024

MA, RYT 500, and ICF-certified coach is a holistic physical and mental health writer and educator. With global recognition, she's enriched over 2 million readers through her blog and shaped 800+ instructors worldwide. Fluent in four languages, Hakima blends extensive knowledge and a rich multicultural insight, making her a distinguished authority in the wellness sphere.

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