What You Should Know If You Love Someone Who Has Panic Attacks

Learn how it feels to get one and how you can help.
Loved ones can play an integral role in helping someone who is experiencing a panic attack.
Loved ones can play an integral role in helping someone who is experiencing a panic attack.

Millions of American adults experience panic attacks, a debilitating side effect of some mental health conditions. The attacks can cause labored breathing, extreme anxiety and distress, heart palpitations and more. Loved ones can play an integral role in helping someone who is going through an episode. Yet, if you don’t understand what it’s like to experience the issue, it can be hard to lend a hand or even feel compassion for someone dealing with it.

That’s where education can come in. HuffPost asked readers to share their experiences with panic attacks and what they wished everyone knew about them, whether it be correcting inaccurate stereotypes or describing the symptoms that occur.

Below are a few things friends, family and partners should keep in mind.

Panic attacks aren’t cries for attention

“It isn’t a show and it is not for attention. Believe me, I would like nothing more than to hide it from the people I love because it is embarrassing. So when it happens, rather than condemning me, please just hold me, listen to me, talk me through it. Don’t accuse me of faking it for attention. That usually sends me into an even worse attack.” ― Katie Burton via email

Telling someone to “just relax” doesn’t help

“Whenever I had a panic attack, my family kept telling me to just ‘relax.’ Telling someone who is in a panic attack to just relax is basically useless. The best advice I can give is to just listen to the person having the panic attack on what his or her needs are and let the panic attack pass unless it gets out of control.” ― Meghan Reid via email

It can feel like the room is closing in on you

“It felt like the room/ceiling was caving in on me. It made me feel small next to the room size. I couldn’t breathe or move. It continued until my 30s when I finally got help and learned coping skills with therapy. The worse part is sometimes it’s still too much. My husband is very understanding so I am lucky to have him.” ― Nicole Farley via email

Telling someone having a panic attack to "just relax" doesn't help.
Telling someone having a panic attack to "just relax" doesn't help.

Panic attacks are more than just having excessive stress

“They are much greater than feelings of anxiety. Panic attacks feel like impending death and doom. I feel like I’m a second away from a stroke when they occur.” ― Kelly Kathleen via Facebook

An episode can completely zap your energy

“After I have a panic attack, I can’t do anything. My body is completely drained of energy. My most recent series of panic attacks kept me from doing the most basic of things. I didn’t do laundry for almost 3 months. And not being able to do basic things would give me more anxiety causing it to be a never-ending cycle.” ― Leah Miller via Facebook

Panic attacks make it hard to communicate

“I wish my family could understand what my panic attacks feel like. Not because I ever want anyone to suffer the way that I do, but because then they might not be hurt when I don’t respond to them the way they want or expect.” ― Kelsey Holmberg via email

You can’t make someone’s panic attack go away easily

“I would wish my loved ones to stop trying to ‘fix’ the attack, and quietly empathize and be there to keep me safe.” ― James Wong via Facebook

But you can help by being an open, consistent source of comfort

“I have been extremely lucky in that my fiancé learned early on that I need him to make himself available, but to let me come to him when I’m ready. He doesn’t push me to get it over with, he doesn’t tell me to ‘just calm down,’ and he doesn’t expect me to have a reason as to what’s wrong with me and why I’m so upset.” ― Kelsey Holmberg via email

You can help someone who experiences panic attacks by being a source of comfort.
You can help someone who experiences panic attacks by being a source of comfort.

While there are some universal symptoms of panic attacks, people’s experiences can be different

“I think one of the biggest problems with trying to understand panic attacks is that they’re different for everyone who experiences them. It’s incredibly hard to explain to someone who has experienced panic attacks, and nearly impossible to explain to someone who has never experienced one. All we can really do is be as patient and sympathetic as possible.” ― Kelsey Holmberg via email

And each episode can vary

“There’s not just one type of experience. It can happen anywhere, anytime, in public or when you’re alone or anything in between. It can be one that lasts a few seconds, minutes or hours. You can cry a little, a lot or not at all. You can basically feel anything. And it’s impossible to describe it perfectly.” ― Harlee Schreckengost via Facebook

Panic attacks can happen anywhere, including parties or events

“When I need to leave a social situation, please don’t question me in the moment, just leave with me or allow me to leave with no questions asked. In my experience, if I know the person I’m with will be safe for me in this way, my anticipatory anxiety decreases, and thus the likelihood of a panic attack.” ― Amy Marie via Facebook

Panic attacks can happen anywhere.
Panic attacks can happen anywhere.

Panic attacks have a way of convincing you that you’re not OK

“It sucks that your reasonable, rational mind can know that everything in reality is fine, but sometimes because of your chemical imbalance, your brain suddenly freaks out and thinks you may be dying.” ― Melissa Williams via Facebook

An episode can alter a person’s mood for the worse

“I’m not impatient. I don’t love them any less. It’s not that I don’t want to help. I don’t want to sit on my bed in tears while my husband tries to soothe our daughter to sleep. I don’t want to have to walk outside to try to catch my breath. I don’t want to react in a way that makes my husband question what he’s doing wrong.” ― Allyssa Siegrist via Facebook

Panic attacks are just as serious as any other health condition

“Basically, people need to understand it’s a real and physical disability. It is not in our heads. It is genuinely painful and draining.” ― Colette Royal via Facebook

Your patience is appreciated more than you know

“We’re trying. We would give anything to be able to calm down in situations that seem silly but cause our blood pressure to skyrocket. Just be patient.” ― Stephanie Sunde via Facebook

Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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