When Anxiety Attacks: How Can I Help?

In my last post, I talked about the exhausting mental and physical effects of anxiety attacks. Today, I’m going to share some ideas on how to help someone who is in the middle of an anxiety attack.

Of course, everyone who experiences anxiety attacks is a unique individual. Our experiences are not all the same. However, there are some common themes that arise, and hence, some common themes around how we can help in those difficult times.

There will be things that only the individual can do, such as engaging in therapy, taking medication, learning new coping skills, and so on. But these things take time, so having someone to support us through the journey can be crucial.


Be Prepared

Being proactive is much more beneficial than being reactive, so the first thing I would note is, if you know someone who experiences anxiety attacks, have a chat with them about how they would like to be helped in the event of an anxiety attack. Making sure you have this information beforehand means you are more likely to be able to offer the help the individual actually needs, rather than mistakenly doing something that is at best, unhelpful, or at worst, detrimental.


One-Size-Fits-All?

When I completed my Mental Health First Aid training in 2020 (MHFA England), there was a section on panic/anxiety attacks. We were discussing how to help and someone suggested “telling them the breathe slowly”…

I decided to raise my hand and throw in my two cents.

“In my experience, I’ve actually found this really unhelpful. I’m already trying to breathe slowly. To me, being told to breathe slowly is like saying ‘calm down’ – it’s not that simple, and I hear it as the person telling me that it IS that simple.”

Me

I don’t know how much sense that made. I guess in other words, telling me to “breathe slowly” feels dismissive. Kind of like “calm down, you’re making a scene” – as if I could choose to just switch it off.

My point is, the best way to support someone through an anxiety attack is to find out their preferences before an attack occurs. During the attack, they won’t be able to tell you what they need, so you will have to guess. Take the time to sit with them when they’re calm and ask them what they find helpful, so you can be prepared.


My Experience and Ideas

Here are some of my ideas about what helps me during an anxiety attack. Don’t assume everyone finds these helpful. However, they might give you a starting point for suggestions of things you could do, if they struggle to verbalise their needs.

If you have any more ideas to add, I’d love to hear them – leave a comment at the bottom of the page!

Don’t make a fuss

This is top of the list for me. The absolute last thing I need during an anxiety attack is people staring at me or crowding me. Please don’t draw attention to me. It’s difficult because I know people just want to help, but it has the opposite effect for me.

Take the lead

If we’re in the middle of ordering coffee or speaking to a service on the phone, it helps me if you seamlessly take over the conversation. Keep the conversation/transaction going and give me time to regain my composure without making it obvious to the other party. This might mean answering a question for me or simply bagging my shopping for me. I don’t want to stop and wait until the attack passes, my main goal is to complete the transaction and get out of there so I can calm down properly.

Help me escape

Following on from the previous point – get me out of there. Again, I don’t want to draw attention to myself by running away, but chances are, I do need to get out of the anxiety-inducing environment. If I’m overwhelmed by a crowd, lead me through the people until we’re outside. Find a quiet space with plenty of fresh air.

Provide a distraction

If I can’t move, just keep talking. Pretend you’re telling me something so I don’t have to speak. This not only prevents others from noticing me, it also helps to distract me and calm me down.

Provide reassurance

Whilst saying “calm down” or “breathe slowly” isn’t helpful to me, I do find it helpful when you quietly tell me that everything is under control, you see that I’m struggling, and you will step in whenever needed. This helps me to focus solely on managing the symptoms of my anxiety, rather than worrying that I need to, for example, pay the cashier, give my name to the receptionist, or whatever task we’re doing at the time.

Let me debrief

When the attack is over, I usually find it helpful to debrief with someone. It might be about what triggered it, or about the events that led up to it during the day. It might be that I was able to use a healthy coping method and I’d like to share that with you. I might just need to tell you that it was horrible and hear you say that you understand. Having this short debrief also helps me to let go of any worry or embarrassment I might be feeling with regard to having an anxiety attack.

Let me rest

Anxiety attacks are absolutely exhausting. Afterwards, I may feel suddenly and severely fatigued, and need to sleep or at least lie down. Please don’t pressure me to rally or recover quickly. Allow me time to recharge.

For now

Of course, these techniques are for in the actual moment of an anxiety attack. The ideal goal would be to get to a place where we no longer have anxiety attacks, or at least they are less frequent and less severe.

But with treatment waiting lists anywhere from months to years, it’s important that we support people right now, right where they are. Anxiety attacks don’t get put on pause just because your name is on a waiting list.

If you can help to bridge that gap, please do.

If you experience anxiety attacks, what can people do to support you in that moment?

Maybe you have an example of “support” that was actually unhelpful?

How have you supported someone else?

Let me know in the comments!
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Related article: When Anxiety Attacks

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