Experiencing an anxiety attack is awful, and witnessing someone else have one can make you feel helpless and scared. However, there are things that you can do to help de-escalate what they are experiencing. Whether you know someone who often experiences anxiety attacks, or you want to be prepared just in case, this information is incredibly valuable. Keep reading to get tips shared by our Director of Psychotherapy, Ming Loong Teo, LCSW, on how to help someone calm an anxiety attack.
Normalize what they are experiencing
The first thing you should do to help someone come down from an anxiety attack is to validate their feelings and emotions and normalize what they are experiencing.
Anxiety attacks are a scary yet normal reaction. They occur when someone has built up fear, dread, nervousness, worry, and/or tension, and then that person suddenly reaches their tolerance threshold for those emotions.
When that tolerance threshold is reached, a person’s prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for regulating our emotions and managing our behavioral impulses) is overwhelmed by the intensity of emotion and is unable to do its job. When the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed, a person can find themself unable to focus, concentrate, regulate their emotions, and control their own behaviors.
Help them understand that what they are experiencing may be horrible, but it is appropriate. They are not sick, defective, or “crazy.” You can say something like, “I know you’re having a really rough time right now. You’re really upset, and that’s okay.”
Let them know they are safe
Know that what they are feeling now is not going to last too long. The neurochemicals in their body that help them feel their anxiety will eventually run out of supply. Most likely, their anxiety will taper down after about half an hour to an hour, leaving them feeling depleted and exhausted.
After normalizing what they are experiencing and validating their feelings, you’ll want to let them know that they are going to be okay. You can say something like, “You are not okay right now, but you are safe, so let’s keep you safe.”
Help ground them
When it comes to anxiety de-escalation, the goal is to help that person get back in connection with the here and now. Doing so will help their brain get back in control to regulate their emotions and control their behaviors. Grounding exercises help us to achieve that goal as they use sensations and cognitions to distract from the racing thoughts and feelings the person is experiencing.
Once they feel validated and safe, you can start working on grounding exercises. Begin with taking slow, deep breaths together. Deep breathing exercises will help slow down their heart rate, lower their blood pressure, and hopefully alleviate some of their physical symptoms.
After they come down a little from breathing, try some other grounding exercises. Examples of grounding exercises include:
- Putting their hand in a bowl of cold water or running their hands under cold running water in the sink
- Holding ice cubes
- Giving them sour candy
- Feeling their chair or something nearby and explaining the temperature or the texture
If they come down enough to have a conversation, you can try asking them ground questions, such as:
- Where are you now?
- What day of the week is it?
- What did you have for breakfast?
There are many ways to help someone feel grounded, and some exercises may work better for different people. Be patient and try out different exercises as needed.
Talk to them about getting help
After they have come down from their anxiety attack, gently talk to them about the option of getting help. Whether this was their first anxiety attack or something they experience regularly, these feelings are their body’s warning signs that it is time to get help. And, we cannot emphasize this enough, there is nothing wrong with getting help.
While anxiety can be caused by countless environmental stressors, a general cause for anxiety and anxiety attacks is feeling a lack of control. Let them know they deserve to feel better and have power over their lives. Getting help will allow them to feel more in control. Help them feel that they have the ability to do something about what they are experiencing and that it is okay to do something about it.
If they are interested in getting help, we are here for them. We offer a wide range of behavioral health services, including psychotherapy, medication, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and esketamine. We even offer teletherapy and telepsychiatry appointments and accept most major insurances. Have them connect with us today, and we will give them the support they deserve.