How to Help Someone Through a Panic Attack

Panic attacks are short periods of intense fear or discomfort characterized by feelings of dread and fear and physical symptoms like shaking, sweating, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. Panic attacks can be scary, especially if you aren't familiar with them.

This article will discuss how to recognize when someone is having a panic attack, what to say and do for them, things to avoid, and when to seek help.

Woman sitting with hands in face during panic attack

 bymuratdeniz / Getty Images

How to Recognize a Panic Attack

A panic attack is a type of anxiety disorder. Someone having a panic attack is experiencing an intensely anxious reaction to something that may or may not be obvious. Therefore, it is often more helpful to pay attention to the symptoms than to determine the cause of the panic attack. Some visible signs of a panic attack include:

  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Appearing lightheaded or unsteady

There are also some non-observable signs of a panic attack, which include:

  • Racing heart
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach pain or nausea
  • A feeling of being out of control
  • Fear of death or impending doom

Panic attacks tend to come on quickly and often without warning. Most panic attacks only last a few minutes, but they can last longer. Although they may feel unsafe to the person having one, panic attacks are not dangerous.

Anxiety vs. Panic Attacks

Anxiety is uncomfortable and ongoing dread that occurs when we worry about the future or things we cannot control. Physical symptoms include sleeplessness, stomach issues, and headaches. Panic attacks come on quickly, often without warning, and are short periods of intense fear, feelings of doom, and physical symptoms, like shaking or chest pain.

What to Say to Someone Having a Panic Attack

Panic attacks can be scary to experience and observe. If you are with someone who is having a panic attack, there are things you can say to help. Clear, direct messages are more effective than general comments. It is important to be non-judgemental and provide reassurance.

  • Talk to them in a calm voice and speak in short sentences.
  • Ask about medications they may use during a panic attack.
  • Ask what they need or what has helped them in the past rather than making assumptions.
  • Help them slow their breathing by focusing on slow, deep inhales through the nose, and long exhales through the mouth.
  • Offer additional suggestions in a way that makes them feel in control. Do this by asking them if they'd like to try a new strategy rather than telling them what to do.

What to Do When Someone Is Having a Panic Attack

Talking to someone through a panic attack is one strategy and there are more structured methods to try if your words don't seem to be helping.

  • Count backward from 10, slowly
  • Place an ice cube on the writs or face for a few moments
  • Take a walk or engage in some type of movement
  • Try to solve simple math problems
  • Practice visualization
  • Try a grounding exercise, like the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique

5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique

This technique uses the five senses to engage a person experiencing a panic attack in the present moment.

  • Name five different objects you can see around you, and describe what they look like
  • Name four different sounds you can hear around you, and describe what they sound like
  • Name three different objects you can touch around you, and describe how they feel
  • Name two different smells around you, and describe how they smell
  • Name one thing you can taste, and describe how it tastes

If these methods do not work, stay with the person until the panic attack has passed. Reassure them that you are there and will remain with them to ensure they are okay.

Things to Avoid

When someone has a panic attack, they need validation and reassurance. Some reactions could make the panic attack worse. Try avoiding these things when helping a family member or friend through a panic attack:

  • Joining in the panic
  • Minimizing or questioning their feelings
  • Making casual observations or comments

When to Seek Help

A significant percentage of panic attacks include chest pain as a symptom, making it challenging to distinguish from a heart attack or other medical illnesses when they first emerge. If you are unsure whether someone is having a panic attack or something more medically serious, contact a healthcare provider immediately to rule out any potentially life-threatening illnesses.


Panic attacks are short periods of intense anxiety that usually come on quickly and without warning. Observing someone having a panic attack can be scary and challenging to recognize. There are visible symptoms to look for and strategies to support someone having a panic attack. If you're unsure whether the person is having a panic attack or if they are complaining of chest pain, contact a healthcare provider immediately.

A Word From Verywell

If you are with someone having a panic attack, stay calm and try not to panic. If you can, offer the person reassurance that they are safe, and stay with them until it passes. Familiarizing yourself with panic attacks can help you identify them and help calm someone down who's experiencing one.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long do panic attacks last?

    Panic attacks reach a peak within minutes and can vary in length, ranging from five to 20 minutes on average, but can sometimes last longer.

  • What helps panic attacks fast?

    The quickest way to get through a panic attack is to calm the body and mind. Breathing exercises encouraging long, slow inhales and exhales can steady breathing, grounding exercises can keep you in the present moment, and walking or moving around can provide a distraction.

  • What do you do when your partner is having a panic attack?

    Try to stay calm, and don't panic. Help calm your partner's breathing by demonstrating long, slow breaths, try distracting them with a funny story, or keep them in the present moment by asking them to look around and name all the objects they see that are a particular color. Offer reassurance by telling them that they are safe, that the symptoms are going to pass, and that you are with them.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Perrotta G. Panic disorder: definitions, contexts, neural correlates and clinical strategiesCurrent Trends in Clinical & Medical Sciences. 2019;1(2).

  2. NAMI HelpLine. How do I help someone experiencing a panic attack?

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. How to help someone with anxiety.

  4. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Panic disorder: when fear overwhelms.

  5. Locke AB, Kirst N, Shultz CG. Diagnosis and management of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults. AFP. 2015;91(9):617-624.

  6. Mental Health First Aid. How to help someone who is having a panic attack.

  7. Madaliyeva SKh, Yernazarova ST, Bagiyarova FA, Belyavskaya B. The use of different psychotherapeutic techniques for panic attacksEuropean Journal of Natural History. 2016;6:114-115.

  8. Your guide for getting through the anxiety.

  9. Psychosomatics. Non-cardiac chest pain: a review for the consultation-liaison psychiatrist. 2017;58(3):252-265. doi:10.1016/j.psym.2016.12.003

  10. NHS. Panic disorder.