If you have ever seen someone having a panic attack, it can be scary. It may feel like you are helpless and don’t know what to do. People who have experienced them know that it can feel like a heart attack, and many have gone to the hospital because of panic symptoms.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines Panic Disorder as “an anxiety disorder characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These episodes occur ‘out of the blue,’ not in conjunction with a known fear or stressor.”
Panic Disorder impacts about 6 million Americans. This disorder not only impacts the person experiencing it but the loved ones who may not know what to do or how to help.
Tools to Help During a Panic Attack
Calling a doctor or professional is okay; you don’t have to do this alone. Everyone is different and may respond differently when you try to help. That’s normal. But here are some in the moment tools that can help.
The first thing to do is breathe deeply. In this stressful situation, it would make sense that our own breathing would speed up as well in the stress of the moment.
Try to activate some mirror neurons by looking at them as you breathe calmly — it may cause them to imitate. Breathing can help you stay calm. Our bodies and brains are sending messages to each other all of the time. In this moment, we want our body to tell our brain what to do.
“Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol” (Alderman 2016).
To do this simply, BREATHE OUT as long as you can, completely emptying your airways. This will force you to take in a deep breath. Try this a few times.
Consider the surroundings
Check out the surroundings. Is the person having a panic attack in a public place? Are their kids around? Help them get somewhere private if you can. This will help by not creating more panic at the idea of people seeing what is going on.
Get those feet on the ground and find everything in the room that is green. This kind of game is hard for someone
to do on their own, so if you are able to initiate the activity, it may help get their mind off of it.
There are so many grounding techniques that you can use, but simple, easy-to-remember ones can be most helpful in the face of panic. Anxiety is often an overestimation of what is not in your control and an underestimation of what is, so find something to have control over in that moment.
“Grounding is a practice that can help you pull away from flashbacks, unwanted memories, and negative or challenging emotions . . . . Techniques may help distract you from what you’re experiencing and refocus on what’s happening in the present moment” (Raypole 2019).
Change the temperature! Sweating and heat are common symptoms of panic attacks. If you are able to, grab an ice pack, cold rag, or go outside on a walk with them if it is cold. If available, offer for them to submerge and/or wash their face in water.
“The mammalian diving reflex is a natural reflex that occurs in all mammals and is triggered in humans when our faces are submerged in cold water. The reflex causes our body chemistry to change—heart rate drops down immediately and the parasympathetic nervous system is activated to prompt a relaxation response. Make sure to keep water above 50 degrees Fahrenheit” (Sevleve 2017).
If someone is having a panic attack, PRAY with them. This might look different depending on how severe the panic attack. It may be that you are just praying on your own to find peace.
Mark 4:35-41 tells us the story of when Jesus calmed a literal storm. Jesus told the waves to, “Quiet! Be Still!” and the water and wind obeyed Him. The kind of God that can calm the ocean can calm our hearts and is sovereign over our situations.
As Christians in this troubled and sinful world, sometimes it is hard to feel that God is listening. In this story, Jesus was in the stern of the boat sleeping on a cushion. The disciples felt that He did not care about their safety, and yet His life shows just how much He truly cared and saved their eternal lives.
There are times when it might feel like Jesus is sleeping in the stern, but in those times we can be quiet and still. We can call on Him to help with our personal storms, because He cares for us, and He cares for your family member, too.
Finally, just wait it out — it may feel like forever, but it will pass. The height of a panic attack typically happens within 10-30 minutes. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help and get a professional if it gets worse or the person is in danger.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” — Serenity Prayer
What NOT to Do During a Panic Attack
Do not freak out
If you do, that’s okay, but step out of the room because the two of you together freaking out will only make things worse.
Do not say, “Just stop it!”
Using intimidation, yelling, or just telling someone to stop may feel like it is effective, but it can often cause more anxiety and increase the likelihood that it will happen again. Often if someone could just stop it, they would.
“Myth: Panic attacks are an overreaction and intentionally dramatic.
Reality: Contrary to stigmatizing beliefs, panic attacks aren’t something people can control. We don’t know exactly what causes panic attacks, but we do know that they can often be triggered by stressful events, mental illness, or unspecified stimuli or changes in the environment” (Catlin, 2018).
Do not give up hope
Even if your loved one has had many panic attacks over the years, there is hope and there is help.
Christian Counseling for Mental Health
Know what is in your control. If you have done all of this and you are still feeling defeated, just know, mental health is a serious thing and may often require a higher level of intervention.
It is important to understand that these tools can help with coping in the moment, but seeking peace in life overall takes time and daily practice. Some things that can help are emotion regulation skills such as self-care, accumulating positive emotions, and a consistent prayer life. Reminding yourself of memorized Scripture can also be powerful in moments of trouble.
Research has shown that medications and therapy combined are the most effective way to treat mental health issues. You cannot do this work for someone else, but being a strong support can help your loved one get the help they need.
Getting your own counseling can also be so helpful. It is difficult to accept and cope with situations that are out of our control. Something that is in your control is getting the help you need, and if others in your life can see the positive impacts it has in your life, it may cause them to want to receive help for themselves.
Alderman, L. (2016, November 11). The benefits of controlled breathing. Retrieved from
Catlin, C. (2018, June 19). Myth vs. Reality: What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/myth-vs-reality-panic-attacks#
“NIMH ” Home.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human
Sevleve, Melina. “Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Distress Tolerance Skills: TIPP
Skills.” Manhattan Psychology Group, 20 Sept. 2017, manhattanpsychologygroup.com/dialectical-behavior-therapy-dbt-distress-tolerance-skills-tipp-skills/.
Raypole, Crystal. (2019, May 24). “30 Grounding Techniques to Quiet Distressing Thoughts.”
“Defying the Waves”, Courtesy of Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Scripture,” courtesy of Aaron Burden, unsplash.com, CC0 License “Breathe”, Courtesy of Max van den Oetelaar, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Ripples”, Courtesy of Ian Keefe, Unsplash.com, CC0 License