for better mental health

Anxiety and panic attacks

Explains anxiety and panic attacks, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

Coronavirus (Covid-19) is impacting all our lives, and we know that the usual advice might not quite apply. Some ideas for looking after yourself may feel unrealistic right now. And some treatment and support options will be harder to access, or may be unavailable for a while. But we hope that you can still find information here that helps you understand what you're going through, and find a path forward.
You can also find lots of resources in our coronavirus information hub. And our page of coronavirus useful contacts can direct you to more support.

This page is for friends and family who want to support someone who experiences anxiety or panic attacks.

It can be really difficult when someone you care about is experiencing anxiety problems or panic attacks, but there are things you can do to help.

Don't pressure them

Try not to put pressure on your friend or family member to do more than they feel comfortable with. It's really important to be patient, listen to their wishes and take things at a pace that feels okay for them.

It's understandable to want to help them face their fears or find practical solutions, but it can be very distressing for someone to feel they're being forced into situations before they feel ready. This could even make their anxiety worse. Try to remember that being unable to control their worries is part of having anxiety, and they aren't choosing how they feel.

"[What helps me is] calmness, acceptance – not trying to dispel it with 'rational' or 'logical' argument."

Helping someone who is having a panic attack

It's understandable to feel frightened if someone you care about experiences a panic attack – especially if it seems to happen without warning. But it can help if you:

  • try to stay calm
  • gently let them know that you think they might be having a panic attack and that you are there for them
  • encourage them to breathe slowly and deeply – it can help to count out loud, or ask them to watch while you gently raise your arm up and down
  • encourage them to stamp their feet on the spot
  • encourage them to sit somewhere quietly until they feel better.

You should never encourage someone to breathe into a paper bag during a panic attack. This isn't recommended and it might not be safe.

(See our page on panic attacks for more information and tips on how to cope.)

Try to understand

  • Find out as much as you can about anxiety. This will help you understand what they are going through. Reading personal experiences can help too.
  • Ask about their experience. You could ask them how anxiety affects their day-to-day life, and what makes it better or worse. Listening to their experience could help you to empathise with how they feel.

"Be kind, be non-judgemental… let us know it will pass, let us know you are there."

Ask how you can help

Your friend and family member may already know how you can support them – for example, it might help to take them out of the situation, talk to them calmly or do breathing exercises with them.

By asking them what they need or how you can help, you can support them to feel more in control themselves. Knowing that there is someone around who knows what to do if they start to feel frightened or panicked could help them feel safer and calmer.

"Reminding me to breathe, asking me what I need..."

Support them to seek help

If you think your friend or family member’s anxiety is becoming a problem for them, you could encourage them to seek appropriate treatment by talking to a GP or therapist. You could:

  • Offer to help them arrange a doctor's appointment. If they are scared of leaving the house, you could suggest they ring their GP to find out if they will do home visits.
  • Offer support when they attend appointments. You could offer to go with them to their appointments and wait in the waiting room. You can also help them plan what they'd like to talk about with the doctor. (See pages on seeking help for a mental health problem more information.)
  • Help them seek help from a therapist. (See our page on how to find a therapist for more information).
  • Help them research different options for support, such as community services or peer support groups such as those run by Anxiety UK and No Panic. (See our useful contacts page for more information.) You could also call Mind's Infoline to find out more about local services.

(See our page on supporting someone else to seek help for more information.)

Look after yourself

It can sometimes be really challenging to support someone with a mental health problem – you are not alone if you feel overwhelmed at times. It is important to remember to look after your own mental health too, so you have the energy, time and distance you need to be able to help.

For example:

  • Set boundaries and don't take too much on. If you become unwell yourself you won't be able to offer as much support. It is also important to decide what your limits are and how much you feel able to help.
  • Share your caring role with others, if you can. It's often easier to support someone if you're not doing it alone.
  • Talk to others about how you’re feeling. You may want to be careful about how much information you share about the person you’re supporting, but talking about your own feelings with someone you trust can help you feel supported too.
  • Find support for yourself. The organisations in useful contacts are there to support you, too. It could also help to explore peer support and talking treatments.

(For more suggestions, see our pages on how to cope when supporting someone else, managing stress and improving and maintaining your wellbeing.)

This information was published in September 2017. We will revise it in 2020.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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