Helping Someone Through Panic Attacks and Anxiety

by Alekhya Vittalam
Homework, assignments, projects, quizzes, midterms, deadlines, and then back to the beginning with the start of a new quarter. Does this sound familiar? Within the blink of an eye you are overwhelmed with the amount of work.

That’s the way the quarter system works here at UCLA, and it’s no surprise that you may get stressed out quite frequently. Stress could be a motivator for you to complete your work well within time, but up to what extent is stress a means of motivation? When does excessive stress turn into something much more toxic to your physical and mental well being?

Panic attacks and anxiety disorders are becoming more and more common, especially due to the increasing amount of stress one goes through in today’s world. While there are many different reasons for these disorders, stress tops the list. Since these mental health issues are becoming more prevalent, it is natural that we will find ourselves around people who face them regularly. So what can you do when a friend suffering from panic attacks or anxiety turns to you for help? 

Panic AttackS

A panic attack is an intense and sudden feeling of fear, terror, nervousness, or apprehension. Even though it occurs out of the blue without an obvious trigger, the underlying reason behind it is usually a known stressor. Panic attacks usually peak within 10 minutes, and then subside. Sometimes they may be prolonged, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and when the other starts. [1]

Identifying symptoms

Panic Attacks [UCLA Total Wellness].png

Alleviating anxiety

Knowing some ways that help alleviate panic attacks may be practical and helpful as they can be advantageous when you find yourself with someone experiencing panic attacks.

One of the most popular and effective ways to alleviate anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which can help reduce stress and avoid anxious thinking by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and thoughts. Suggesting CBT to a person experiencing a panic attack is advisable as this method of treatment boosts happiness. [2] In a 2009 study, patients underwent cognitive behavioral intervention (CBI) to diminish symptoms by correcting distorted thinking.[3] Results of the CBT study showed that it is a highly effective treatment for panic disorder and is advisable for someone who is suffering and requires professional help. Thus, as a friend, suggesting this type of treatment for someone who is looking for professional help may be a good idea. [4]

Panic attacks are sometimes determined by a feeling of tension in the chest that can cause the person to take short, heavy breaths. Thus, deep breathing can be a helpful way of controlling panic attacks and easing tension. The affected person should breathe from the abdomen, slowly and steadily filling the lungs. Inhaling lavender oil has also been known to help relieve some symptoms of panic attacks as well as anxiety. In fact, one 2013 study showed significant improvements among women affected with depression who used lavender oil aromatherapy. Lavender oils helped in maintenance of elevated moods as well as improvement in emotional state. Thus, lavender oils are capable of elevating mood and can be considered as an option to help alleviate anxiety and panic attack symptoms. [5]

Physical exercises such as walking can also help in preventing panic attacks as they release endorphins in our body. The rhythm of walking can also help in the regulation of breathing. Mental exercises like meditation are also helpful as they relieve stress, promote peacefulness, and regulate breathing. [6] If you find yourself in a situation where your friend is suffering from a panic attack, one effective way to help them is by helping them take deep breaths and control or regulate their breathing.

While there are various and popular ways of treatment of panic disorders that have been proven effective, it is advisable to learn the triggers that tend to cause panic attacks for your friend or loved one. This is because triggers can vary from person to person. By knowing their specific triggers, you can better manage or avoid inducing panic attacks in a person, or at least reduce the frequency of these attacks by avoiding the situation. Knowledge of different treatments  will also allow you to be a helpful friend especially for someone who is lost and does not know what to do.


While panic attacks are usually short lived conditions, anxiety develops over longer periods of time and is highly correlated with excessive worry about some potential danger, real or perceived. It may often feel like an attack when the anticipation of something builds up and stress reaches a level where it becomes overwhelming. [1]

Identifying symptoms

Anxiety Symptoms [UCLA Total Wellness].png

The symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks are actually quite similar. The major difference between them that should be kept in mind is that panic attacks are more sudden and intense while anxiety intensifies gradually. [1]

Alleviating anxiety

Living a healthy lifestyle comprised of regular exercise, meditation, and a clean diet is said to help in alleviating anxiety. For example, regular meditation relieves stress and promotes peacefulness. In addition to meditation, breathing exercises are also beneficial as they help to combat effects of hyperventilation. A healthy lifestyle also involves regular exercise which promotes deeper sleep and gets rid of built-up tension as it produces endorphins (happy hormones). [6]

A 2018 study looked at the effects of aerobic exercise on patients experiencing symptoms of anxiety. In this study, ten patients were self-evaluated through a number of questionnaires and performed twelve sessions of aerobic exercises. Despite the small sample size, the study shows that regular aerobic exercise promotes reduction in anxiety levels to some extent. [7] Advising a friend who is having anxiety to be more active and go out of the house a little more can go a long way.


What to do

When someone is having a panic attack:

  • Remain calm

  • Make sure the person has enough space around them

  • Suggest moving to a quieter place nearby

  • Remind the person that panic attacks always end

  • Help them control their breathing

  • Stay with them unless they want to be alone but make sure they remain visible to you [6]

What not to say

  • Do not ask too many questions or validate any negative statements [9]

  • Never tell someone to calm down or say that there is nothing to worry about

    • Saying this may indicate to the person that he/she has complete control over their symptoms

  • Do not tell them that they have nothing to be nervous about

    • Most likely, the panic attack sufferer is aware that there is no reason to be anxious. During a panic attack, a person’s flight-or-fight response is triggered, making his/her mind and body prepare for an actual or perceived threat

  • Do not tell them that they are just overreacting

    • This can tremendously discourage a person facing a panic attack. Panic attacks are a real set of symptoms and should not be confused with emotional reactions that are within one’s control. The panic sufferer often perceives these attacks as frightening [10]

Hotline information and CAPS

If you have a friend or loved one who is struggling with anxiety, panic disorder hotlines are a good resource for you to ask questions and learn more about anxiety and panic disorders. Panic hotlines offer different kinds of support and resources [11]. While some lend an empathetic ear, others will connect you to mental health treatment resources. Panic hotlines can be used to:

  • Learn more about panic attacks and common symptoms

  • Talk to someone to understand what is happening

  • Find confidential and anonymous help

  • Locate a counselor or therapist

  • Find a mental health center

  • Learn more about preventing and treating panic attacks

  • Learn more on how to help someone during a panic attack [12]

At UCLA, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is also a good resource in providing short-term, high-quality mental health treatment including assessment, consultation and case management.


The best way to help a suffering loved one is to learn more about what is troubling them. This will also help you understand their situation and you would be able to empathize with what they are going through. Putting in the effort to find out more about how they feel and researching on ways to help them can show them that you care. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big impact on someone’s life. [13]


  1. “Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks.” (2019).

  2.  “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” (n.d.).

  3. “Cognitive Therapy.” (n.d.).

  4. “Cognitive behavior therapy in the treatment of panic disorder.” Indian J Psychiatry. (2009).

  5. “Lavender and the Nervous System.” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. (2013).

  6. “How can you stop a panic attack.” (2018).

  7. “Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Anxiety Symptoms and Cortical Activity in Patients with Panic Disorder: A Pilot Study.” Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. (2018).

  8. “How to recognize an anxiety attack.” medicalnewstoday. (2018).

  9. “How to Handle Someone Else’s Anxiety or Panic Attacks.” (2014).

  10. “What Not to Say to Someone Having a Panic Attack.” (2019).

  11. “UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services.” (n.d.).

  12. “Panic Attack Hotline.” (n.d.).

  13. “How to Help Someone Who’s Having a Panic Attack.” (2017).

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