How to help someone breathe during a panic attack? (Tips)

In this guide, we will discuss How to help someone breathe during a panic attack, why people get panic attacks, the role of breathing during a panic attack and how to shift the breathing pattern.

Additionally, we will see two deep breathing techniques that can be extremely useful when helping someone breathe during a panic attack and some grounding techniques you can use simultaneously.

How to help someone breathe during a panic attack?

If you have wondered how to help someone breathe during a panic attack, it is most likely because you have met someone or know someone that experiences panic attacks and you have felt frustrated or confused about how to react or what to do.

If you would like to help someone breathe during a panic attack consider:

  • Taking slow and deep breathes through the nose, expelling the air through the mouth. This way you can instruct the person to mimic your breathing pattern.
  • Try to hold your breath to the count of ‘three’ and release the air at the count of ‘three’ as well.
  • Remind them to relax the muscles on their lips, face, jaw, shoulder, and stomach. Show them how to do it and ask them to do it with you. 

When we think about a panic attack, we may automatically imagine a paper bag and how people get to experience difficulties breathing.

However, there are more symptoms related to panic attacks, such as chest pain, hyperventilating, sweating, feeling like choking, feeling dizzy, tingling or numbness in the hand or feet, to name a few.

When someone is having a panic attack, we hope that saying ‘calm down’ would suffice for them to actually relax and stop having a panic attack.

This is why people who experience panic attacks may describe it as a frightening, overwhelming, and exhausting experience. 

Subsequently, avoid making them feel ashamed or minimized by saying things like ‘just relax, it is all in your head’ or ‘what is wrong with you?’ which is something most people do when they don’t understand what is happening during a panic attack because they haven’t experienced it themselves. 

Why do people get panic attacks?

When someone has a panic attack, their brain sends a message throughout their body saying they are in a dangerous situation when they are actually not, so think about it as a ‘false alarm’.

However, you may be thinking, ‘but what triggers them?’ and the answer is not as simple or straightforward as we should like.

Panic attack triggers are not always easy to identify, where the fear of having the next panic attack can contribute to feeding the vicious cycle.

What you can do is helping the person by remaining calm, talk to them in a calm voice, and be there for them.

Additionally, try reassuring them you won’t leave them alone, remind them the episode will not last forever and assure them they are safe.

You can also ask them if they need something, such as their medicine (if they have a prescription) or maybe something to drink, it will really depend.

However, be prepared for their answer because they can actually ask you to leave them alone so in this case, take a step back, give them space and room to breathe, and keep your distance but try to stay close in case they change their mind.

A panic attack may not make sense to you and certainly, it is as confusing to them as it is to you, so after the episode try not to bombard them with a lot of questions to look for answers they don’t have. 

Shifting the breathing pattern

As indicated by anxieties.com “During an emergency, our breathing rate and pattern change.

Instead of breathing slowly from our lower lungs, we begin to breathe rapidly and shallowly from our upper lungs.

If during this time we are not physically exerting ourselves, then it can produce a phenomenon called ‘hyperventilation’.”

However, by changing your breathing pattern while having a panic attack can stimulate your parasympathetic response, which is opposite to the one that gets activated when your body goes into ‘emergency mode’ or alert. Shifting the breathing pattern will force our body to ‘calm down’.

When our parasympathetic nervous system can help us decrease oxygen consumption, our breathing and heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, among others.

This is why learning breathing techniques or deep breathing exercises can help us reduce the anxious response.

Breathing is key

When someone is having an anxious response or a panic attack, they tend to breathe getting the air to their upper lungs with shallow and rapid breaths instead of breathing into their lower lungs.

You may often hear how people describe it as not being able to catch their breath or they felt they were running out of air. 

Knowing this will help you to consciously get the air to your lower lungs when the breathing pattern shifts.

Natural breathing or abdominal breathing

Breathing deeply and slowly getting the air into the diaphragm, which is the muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen, will look as if your stomach is expanding and then contracting with each breath.

This type of breathing pattern is called natural breathing or abdominal breathing. 

But how to do this? You may wonder. Try slowly inhaling a normal amount of air through your nose to fill your lower lungs and then exhale slowly, you may feel a bit dizzy at first but it is normal.

Place your hand on your stomach and one in your chest.

While you are inhaling slowly and focusing on letting the air go into your diaphragm you will see and feel how the hand on your stomach rises while the one in your chest stays still.

Moreover, keep breathing and concentrate on your breathing for a few minutes.

If you notice, it is completely different from the breathing pattern someone that is having a panic attack will display since as we have mentioned, breathing becomes rapid and shallow.

Deep diaphragmatic breathing

This technique is very useful when someone is feeling anxious or having a panic attack.

If you would like to try it yourself so you can instruct someone else, here is how it works:

  • Take a long deep breath through your nose filling your lower lungs and then your upper lungs. 
  • Count until three while holding your breath.
  • Exhale the air slowly through your lips, while you relax all the muscles in your face, jaw, shoulders, and stomach. 

Consequently, to master this technique it is necessary to practice a few times during the day to start becoming familiar with it and being able to use it when needed.

Grounding techniques

Grounding techniques can be extremely useful when someone is having a panic attack, helping the person to focus on what is happening at the moment and letting them see there is no need to fear the attack. 

As indicated by Crystal Raypole from Healthline, here are some quick grounding tips:

  • physical touch, like holding their hand (if they’re okay with it)
  • giving them a textured object to feel
  • encouraging them to stretch or move
  • encouraging them to repeat a soothing or helpful phrase, like “this feels awful, but it’s not going to hurt me”
  • talking slowly and calmly about familiar places or activities

Why is this blog about How to help someone breathe during a panic attack important?

As we have discussed how to help someone breathe during a panic attack, breathing is key.

Most panic attack sufferers will say they struggle to breathe even when they try too hard to take a deep breath which seems to make things worse.

However, as we have discussed, most panic attack sufferers will have superficial, shallow breathing where they only engage their upper body.

Learning to breathe through the two main techniques we have mentioned will be extremely useful when helping someone breathe through a panic attack.

Ideally, when someone breathes deeply, they will engage the lower lungs, as well as the diaphragm. Success in mastering the techniques will rely on practice.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about How to help someone breathe during a panic attack

How do you help someone who’s having a panic attack?

If you want to help someone who is having a panic attack:

– Stay with them and remain calm.

– If they take medicine, offer to get it for them.

– Do not assume what they need, instead ask them.

– Avoid asking them too many questions at once, instead, use simple sentences to address them.

– Avoid being unpredictable.

– Help them to breathe and count slowly with them.

Why is it hard to breathe during a panic attack?

It gets hard to breathe during a panic attack because our brain sends an alert to our body to prepare for fighting or running away from a potential threat.

Where breathing becomes difficult since your body is trying to deliver more oxygen to your muscles, preparing you to run.

How do you get rid of shortness of breath from anxiety?

To get rid of shortness of breath from anxiety consciously change your breathing pattern by breathing slowly through your nose, noticing with your hand how your stomach moves.

Throw the air out slowly through your mouth and continue to take deep breaths in and out.

How do you overcome suffocation?

To overcome suffocation we need to avoid going into panic mode and if someone is suffocating by choking, it usually is because they have something stuck in their throat.

The victim could have difficulties breathing and can pass out.

It is important to lean the person slightly forward and give them 5 slaps with the palm of your hand between the two shoulder blades to make them cough.

If they are still unable to cough up the object and are still suffocating, contact emergency services right away.

Do Hugs help anxiety attacks?

Some anxiety attack sufferers may agree on how hugs seem to be beneficial for them.

Hugging seems to help reduce stress and the risk of depression, anxiety, and other illnesses.

However, not everyone enjoys having physical contact, so it is imperative you ask before hugging someone.

What we recommend for Panic disorder

Panic Courses

  • Panic courses are a cost-effective way to seek help for panic attacks. A panic course such as this may help you alleviate those feelings of fears as it has with over 50,000 people.

Professional counselling

  • If you are suffering from a panic disorder, then ongoing professional counselling may be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you live a more fulfilling life.

Weighted Blankets

Weighted Blankets may help you sleep better if you are having panic attack and they are affecting your quality of sleep. Weighted blankets apply enough weight on you that they make you feel much more relaxed and calm at night

References 

Anxieties.com: “Breathing Problems During Anxiety, and How to Fix them”

Raypole, C. (2020, Jan.) How to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack. Retrieved from healthline.com.

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