What Not to Say to Someone Having a Panic Attack

Panic Attack Support

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Panic attacks are characterized by a combination of mental, emotional, and physical symptoms. These attacks typically begin with a sense of dread, nervousness, and fear. Feelings of anxiety often increase in intensity as the person begins to experience somatic sensations such as, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, excessive sweating, tingling, shaking, and even nausea.

These uncomfortable physical symptoms are frequently met with fearful thoughts and emotions, such as being afraid that the attack will cause one to lose control, go insane, have a medical emergency, or even possibly die.

During a panic attack, it is not uncommon for a person to go through feelings of depersonalization and derealization in which the person feels detached from the self and reality.

Panic attack sufferers often have no control over when their symptoms will strike. For people with panic disorder, these attacks come on suddenly, without any warning or cause. Those with specific phobias may only have panic attacks when exposed to their specific fear, however, these feared stimuli may not always be easy to avoid.

Given that attacks can occur at any place or time, different people may try to jump in and help the person through the panic attacks. It is truly kind for someone to try and help a person through these challenging symptoms. However, well-meaning friends, family, and even complete strangers may try their best to help, only to say the wrong thing to the person having the attack.

Read ahead for some ideas on what not to say to someone during a panic attack.

“Just calm down.”

If told to calm down, the panic attack sufferer may feel as though you are suggesting that he has complete control over their symptoms. The fact is that if a person going through a panic attack could just calm down, he would! You may think you are helping to redirect the person be telling him to calm down, but in reality it can just cause him to be more aware and self-conscious of his symptoms.

Instead of being verbally directive, try to get the person to calm down using one of the many strategies to get through panic attacks. For example, you may try to help him through a relaxation technique such as deep breathing, guided imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). By utilizing such techniques, you will be able to redirect the person while making them feel secure and understood.

“You have nothing to be nervous about.”

Most likely, the panic attack sufferer is aware that there is nothing to be so anxious about. When going through a panic attack, a person’s flight-or-fight stress response is triggered, making her mind and body prepare for an actual or perceived threat. Even if she is not in any real danger, she still may not be able to stop the attack from running its course.

Reinforcing that the person’s fear is unfounded can actually only serve to increase one’s sense of anxiety. Instead of bringing the lack of threat to her attention, try being a voice of encouragement. Use a soothing voice and simply remind the panic sufferer that you are there for her.

“I wouldn’t do that, you’re embarrassing yourself.”

This just comes across as a truly insensitive comment. Many people already feel embarrassed about having to manage a panic attack in public, so there is no need to further bring this to the person’s awareness. Instead of further shaming the person, try affirming her strength. Let her know that you are there to be supportive and that she has nothing to be ashamed of. She may already feel humiliated, so it can be most helpful to remain positive. Phrases such as, “You’re doing a great job,” “You will get through this,” or “I am here for you,” can all go a long way in helping a panic sufferer feel more confident at such a vulnerable time.

“You’re just overreacting.”

These few words can be tremendously discouraging for a person facing a panic attack. It can be hard enough to have to deal with uncomfortable symptoms, but even more challenging when others are minimizing a panic sufferer’s experience.

Panic attacks are a real set of symptoms and should not be confused with emotional reactions that are within one’s control. The panic sufferer often perceives these attacks as frightening and by telling the person he is overreacting you may actually make it harder for him to calm down. 

You will get better results if you try to put the person at ease. He may like to be in a quiet area, away from other people, outside where he can get some fresh air, or inside where he may feel less distracted and more secure. If you feel uncertain of what to say or if you are feeling a little frightened yourself, try silently staying by his side as the panic attack subsides. 

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