How To Help Someone With Anxiety and Panic Attacks

The biggest challenge when learning how to help someone with anxiety is that anxiety is often catching. By definition, a panic attack means an out-of-proportion response to the situation. Frequently, dealing with someone with anxiety can be overwhelming for the person trying to help.

As many as a third of all people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. The odds are good that someone you know and care about suffers from panic attacks or another sort of anxiety disorder. With a little understanding and a plan to help, you can help your loved one and stay cool yourself.

Key Takeaways

  • Anything can trigger anxiety.
  • If you can, work on calming down before it becomes a problem.
  • There are a lot of treatment options.
  • Anxiety is a very common problem.
  • You can only help someone calm themselves.
  • Stay calm yourself.
  • Ask them what they need.

What Are Signs of Anxiety?

Everyone experiences some degree of normal anxiety throughout their lives. Obviously, it'd be nice to get some help at those moments. However, we're talking about anxiety as an aspect of mental illness, the classic example of which is panic attacks.

When anxiety starts to interfere with the basic activities of living, it has become a disorder [1]. It's a matter of high functioning anxiety vs crippling anxiety. People who are high functioning have learned strategies for coping with anxiety, whether they know it or not.

People who suffer from an anxiety disorder have a much more difficult time coping. The symptoms will vary depending on the specific disorder. However, some are common to all anxiety disorders, including:

  • Reactions that are out of proportion to the situation, or otherwise inappropriate.
  • Difficulty with the basics of life.
  • Symptoms that continue for at least 6 months.

Additionally, symptoms tend to be classed as either anxiety or fear responses. Anxiety responses include things like avoidance or getting tense. Fear reactions mean flight-or-fight type responses, including leaving to escape danger or getting unreasonably angry.

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Understanding the different types of anxiety disorders can be helpful, as they each have their own challenges. However, before anything else, it's important to be able to recognize an anxiety reaction.

Sometimes it will be obvious, as with panic attacks. Frequently, symptoms may be less noticeable. People suffering from anxiety may not always recognize what's happening, making things even more complicated.

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain.
  • Light-headedness.
  • Edginess.
  • Restlessness.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Most often, generalized anxiety disorder focuses on the worries of daily life, but taken to an unhealthy extreme [2]. People with GAD might worry about bills, good health, or job security to the point that they have difficulty meeting those needs.

Physical anxiety symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Trouble sleeping.

GAD is usually treated with a combination of talk therapy and medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques are both recommended. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is quite common in the US, where women are more prone to be affected

Panic Disorder

The thing that defines a panic disorder is the panic attack [3]. Psychological anxiety and fear are taken to such an extreme that they develop some serious physiological difficulties. These panic attacks may come on without any apparent warning and are sometimes serious enough to be mistaken for heart attacks.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Accelerated heart rate.
  • Sweating.
  • Shaking.
  • Shortness of breath or choking.
  • Feelings of imminent disaster.
  • Feeling out of control.

Many of the same treatments that work for GAD also work for panic disorders, including CBT, mindfulness, and medication.

Social Phobias

This is now better known as social anxiety disorder [4]. It involves intense fear of public humiliation or rejection. Sufferers may also fear being looked down on or disrespected. Examples of a social phobia include fear of public speaking or going to public events.

CBT is also recommended as a treatment for social anxiety disorder. Medications are used to provide relief from symptoms.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Technically, OCD is not an anxiety disorder. While anxiety plays a big part in obsessive-compulsive disorder, mental health professionals decided to separate OCD out into its own category [5].

As the name implies, people with this common mental illness struggle with obsessions and compulsions [6].

Obsessions are persistent thoughts that are distressing and, therefore, can make anxiety worse. Sufferers may recognize they focus on irrational fears but be unable to stop. Examples include extreme fear of sickness or extreme concern with orderliness.

Compulsions are the behaviors people are driven to because of their obsession, such as washing hands or checking switches constantly.

OCD responds to CBT. A class of drugs called SSRIs, also used for depression, can be used to treat OCD.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

This condition is caused by a traumatic event or events in a person's past [7]. That can be something they witnessed or experienced. The trauma might also be indirect, for example, being informed of a loved one's death.

Panic Disorder The thing that defines a panic disorder is the panic attack [3]. Psychological anxiety and fear are taken to such an extreme that they develop some serious physiological difficulties. These panic attacks may come on without any apparent warning and are sometimes serious enough to be mistaken for heart attacks. Symptoms of a panic attack include: Accelerated heart rate. Sweating. Shaking. Shortness of breath or choking. Feelings of imminent disaster. Feeling out of control. Many of the same treatments that work for GAD also work for panic disorders, including CBT, mindfulness, and medication. Social Phobias This is now better known as social anxiety disorder [4]. It involves intense fear of public humiliation or rejection. Sufferers may also fear being looked down on or disrespected. Examples of a social phobia include fear of public speaking or going to public events. CBT is also recommended as a treatment for social anxiety disorder. Medications are used to provide relief from symptoms. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Technically, OCD is not an anxiety disorder. While anxiety plays a big part in obsessive-compulsive disorder, mental health professionals decided to separate OCD out into its own category [5]. As the name implies, people with this common mental illness struggle with obsessions and compulsions [6]. Obsessions are persistent thoughts that are distressing and, therefore, can make anxiety worse. Sufferers may recognize they focus on irrational fears but be unable to stop. Examples include extreme fear of sickness or extreme concern with orderliness. Compulsions are the behaviors people are driven to because of their obsession, such as washing hands or checking switches constantly. OCD responds to CBT. A class of drugs called SSRIs, also used for depression, can be used to treat OCD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) This condition is caused by a traumatic event or events in a person's past [7]. That can be something they witnessed or experienced. The trauma might also be indirect, for example, being informed of a loved one's death.

PTSD is common in the US, and it’s estimated that 4% of men and 10% women will develop it

Sufferers may experience anxiety and depression as a result of the traumatic event that’s left a lasting impression. 

Some medications are used to control symptoms of PTSD. Different cognitive-behavioral therapies are used to help manage the after effects of trauma.

Anxiety and Depression Association

There is an obvious anxiety and depression association, as they seem to occur together frequently [8]. If one family member has either an anxiety disorder or depression, it's not unusual for another one to also suffer from one of the two [9].

As a result, scientists believe that genetics plays a role in the development of both anxiety and depression. At the moment, the consensus is that the same genes probably cause both conditions. However, environmental factors determine whether someone will suffer from anxiety or depression.

How To Support Someone With Anxiety

Trying to help someone struggling with an anxiety disorder is challenging. On the one hand, they may genuinely need your help to control their irrational fears. On the other, all you can really do is offer support while they strive to calm themselves.

While it may not seem significant, the right kind of support can make all the difference in the world.

Learn About Their Anxiety Type

It's important to understand that not everyone who suffers from an anxiety disorder will experience panic attacks. That may be the loudest and most visible symptom of anxiety, but it's probably not the most common one.

What is more common, and can be harder to deal with, are the internal struggles with anxious thoughts and even intense fear. In many cases, the only way for someone else to understand is to ask some diplomatic questions.

Ask How You Can Help

When someone begins to feel anxious or panic, the first response is usually to try to get them to calm down. However, you can't make someone calm down, and trying to usually just makes things worse.

The trick to remember is that it's a cooperative effort and you are the junior partner. The first thing to do is always ask what they need and what you can do to help.

Don't Be Judgemental or Dismissive

Beyond just being a decent human being, this is a key aspect of supporting someone with anxiety. The underlying reason someone is anxious or even experiences panic attacks in the first place is because they've formed an intense negative association. Dismissing or judging their reaction simply reinforces that association even further.

In other words, being judgemental or dismissive actually has the potential to make a mental health issue worse.

Avoid Triggering Activities or Conversations

While confronting fears is usually an aspect of treating anxiety, that's something that may be best handled by mental health professionals. Usually, the excessive worry that characterizes anxiety disorders focuses on a few specific topics. Avoiding those topics helps keep that worry under control.

Suggest Lifestyle Changes

While sufferers often feel helpless, anxiety disorders are highly treatable with many treatment options. It's possible more people suffer from an anxiety disorder and don't seek help, than those who do. That's unfortunate, as anxiety disorders can have serious consequences throughout someone's life.

The best results come from medication and therapy. However, switching out some unhealthy life habits for some healthy ones can also make a noticeable difference.

Changes that are helpful include:

  • Get enough sleep [10].
  • Cut down on sugar and caffeine [11][12].
  • Exercise regularly [13].
  • Meditate regularly [14].
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs [15].
Suggest Lifestyle Changes

High anxiety was linked to higher alcohol abuse than those presenting with low anxiety

Remember that it's best to make these suggestions tactfully and without pressure.

Share Helpful Resources

There are a lot of resources out there that may be helpful for dealing with anxiety. For example, there are a huge number of free guided meditations on YouTube aimed at relieving anxious thoughts. Not only can new resources offer new strategies for managing stress, but sharing them also shows that you care.

Remember to be cautious about what you suggest. Whenever possible, stick with information that is backed by peer-reviewed studies.

Many organizations can offer help, including:

When To Seek Professional Help

Many people would probably benefit from a little therapy. However, when anxiety starts interfering with living and enjoying life, it's time to seek treatment. Reaching that point can sometimes be dramatic and obvious. More often, it's less public and harder to spot.

Some signs of a mental breakdown can include:

  • Calling in sick to work repeatedly.
  • Self-isolation.
  • Irregular eating habits.
  • Problems with personal hygiene.

Normally, finding professional help probably won't be your job. However, if you believe someone is in immediate danger, contact your local emergency number right away.

How Do You Calm Someone With Anxiety?

The key thing to remember here is that you can't calm someone with anxiety, you can only help them calm themselves. If possible, find out what they need and work with them. Some common strategies include:

How-Do-You-Calm-Someone-With-Anxiety

  • Deep breathing.
  • Focusing on the senses (smell, sight, touch, etc.).
  • Counting to 10 slowly.
  • Avoiding or removing anxiety triggers.

What To Say to Someone Who Has Anxiety During an Anxiety Attack?

The first thing to remember is that, whatever you say, keep your tone calm and level. You can think of it as supplying the calm that the person you're helping lacks. 

Start by expressing concern, asking what you can do and how to help. Show them that you care about them and their well-being.

Next, offer some validation and empathy. Everyone gets overwhelmed sometimes, after all.

It can also be a good idea to try to distract them from their anxious thoughts. However, always remember to listen to their needs.

How To Help Someone Having a Panic Attack

While they may seem to come out of nowhere, panic attacks are usually the result of a long, negative thought process full of excessive worry. If you're wondering how to stop a panic attack in full swing, the ideal solution is to short circuit that thought process so everyone can remain panic-free.

Once a panic attack is in full swing, it can be difficult to stop. Addressing physical symptoms can help relieve mental symptoms. Things like deep breathing to slow down your cardiovascular system can relieve some stress. If possible, stretching tense muscles can also help [16].

The most effective thing to do is help the person experiencing a panic attack to feel calm and safe.

How Do I Help My Partner With Anxiety?

Helping loved ones can be difficult in many ways, but when it comes to anxiety and your partner, you have some advantages. First of all, you know your family member much better, allowing you to manage symptoms before they become serious.

Another advantage is that you can take part in that person's life and help them make healthier choices. Some coping strategies like meditation and some relaxation techniques have to be practiced regularly, for example. You can learn how to calm anxiety at night, before going to work, or at other sensitive moments.

How To Help Someone With Anxiety Who Doesn't Want Help

There is a limit to the amount of help you can give to someone who doesn't want it. In many cases, all you can do is provide support to the extent they will let you. Once you've done that, the best thing is to give them some room to calm down.

In some cases, you may want to seek help from another person, preferably a mental health professional.

How To Help Someone With Anxiety and Depression

There is a frequent anxiety and depression association, with one feeding into the other. Particularly in the case of depression, real help takes some time and patience. In the meantime, it's important to help them manage stress.

Remember that both of these mental health conditions have a medical cause, and as a result, may not be entirely under the other person's control. In the long term, you can help them review treatment options, including things like CBT or medication [17].

As a note, both of these conditions can be symptoms of an existential crisis, something that is increasingly common.

What Should You Not Say To Someone With Anxiety?

Saying the wrong thing is unfortunately easy. However, there are a few guidelines you can follow that improve your odds of helping. Calming down can take time and you may have to try several things.

The first rule, however, is to stay calm.

Avoid Pushing Boundaries or Prying

This is always true but applies particularly if you don't know the person well. You should be prepared to listen, commiserate, and comfort. Discussing personal details can be stressful at the best of times, and asking can trigger panic attacks all on its own.

Do your best to remain neutral, calm, and receptive to lower anxiety levels.

Don't Enable Anxious Behavior

In many cases, the natural reaction is to 'fix' the situation, removing whatever is triggering anxious reactions or panic attacks. In the short term, that may be the thing to do.

When you consistently make these sorts of accommodations, however, you're reinforcing the anxiety. Without intending to, you're making it more difficult to face the anxiety next time. As we've mentioned, however, working through anxious situations is best done with the help of a mental health professional.

No Judgement

One of the defining aspects of anxiety disorders is that the reaction is out of proportion to the situation. Your friend or loved one struggling with anxiety will frequently panic over irrational fears. Unfortunately, pointing that out is unlikely to help.

It's important to keep in mind that this is an illness and that the other person is genuinely suffering. Compassion is a prerequisite for helping them.

FAQ

What Triggers Anxiety?

Triggers will often be specific to a person and can be anything. A trigger is something that they have developed a really strong negative association with. It can be related to trauma, but may not be. Common examples include:

What-Triggers-Anxiety

  • Fear of sickness.
  • Fear of embarrassment.
  • Everyday fears, including bills and job worries.
  • Generally feeling unsafe.

How To Help Someone With Anxiety Over Text?

This can be enormously difficult as texting tends to strip away emotion, while emotions are really the only thing you're interested in. The strategies remain the same, but you won't be able to help as directly, especially with panic attacks.. Ultimately, the goal may be to shift the conversation in person or over the phone, where you can be of more help.

How Can I Relieve Anxiety Instantly?

There really isn't a way to just snap your fingers and feel better. Even when it's brought under control quickly, that is usually due to a lot of work on things like mindfulness meditation and other methods of relaxing.

There are a couple of things you can do quickly that can help. Taking deep breaths can help slow down your breathing and heart rate. Moving to a controlled environment where you feel safer can also be helpful.

Conclusion

It is all too common to see others struggling with anxiety. Most of us can empathize, having struggled with it ourselves at one time or another. It's not always easy, but a helping hand can often be all it takes to set someone on a healthier path.

References:

  1. What Are Anxiety Disorders?, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders. 
  2. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.” Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad. 
  3. “Panic Disorder: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.” Panic Disorder | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder. 
  4. Wessely, Simon. “How Shyness Became Social Phobia.” DEFINE_ME, www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(08)60470-5/fulltext. 
  5. “Is It OCD or an Anxiety Disorder? Considerations for Differential Diagnosis and Treatment.” Psychiatric Times, www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/it-ocd-or-anxiety-disorder-considerations-differential-diagnosis-and-treatment. 
  6. What Is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ocd/what-is-obsessive-compulsive-disorder. 
  7. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA.” Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd. 
  8. Fava, Maurizio, et al. “Anxiety Disorders in Major Depression.” Comprehensive Psychiatry, W.B. Saunders, 23 Feb. 2004, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010440X00901408. 
  9. Kendler, Kenneth S. “Major Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” Archives of General Psychiatry, JAMA Network, 1 Sept. 1992, jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/495873. 
  10.  Teker, Ayse Gulsen, and Nimet Emel Luleci. “Sleep Quality and Anxiety Level in Employees.” Northern Clinics of Istanbul, Kare Publishing, 18 Jan. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5864704/.
  11. Kose, Junko, et al. “A Comparison of Sugar Intake between Individuals with High and Low Trait Anxiety: Results from the NutriNet-Santé Study.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 30 Apr. 2021, www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/5/1526.
  12. Santos, Veruska Andrea, et al. “Panic Disorder and Chronic Caffeine Use: A Case-Control Study.” Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health : CP & EMH, Bentham Science Publishers, 30 Sept. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6882139/.
  13. Jayakody, Kaushadh, et al. “Exercise for Anxiety Disorders: Systematic Review.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd and British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine, 1 Feb. 2014, bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/3/187.short.
  14. Kaba-Zinn, Jon, et al. Effectiveness of a Meditation-Based Stress Education Program in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, Aug. 1992, www.researchgate.net/publication/21545608_Effectiveness_of_a_Meditation-based_Stress_Reduction_Program_in_the_Treatment_of_Anxiety_Disorders.
  15. Liappas, J., et al. “Impact of Alcohol Detoxification on Anxiety and Depressive Symptoms.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Elsevier, 10 Sept. 2002, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376871602001953. 
  16. Carlson, Charles R., and Shelly L. Curran. “Stretch-Based Relaxation Training.” Patient Education and Counseling, Elsevier, 24 Mar. 2004, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0738399194900558.
  17. “Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/. 
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