How to tell if someone is having a panic attack

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Sep 28, 2023

How to tell if someone is having a panic attack

Learn how to recognise the signs that someone needs support

In the middle of a panic attack, your mind may be racing as your body is flushed with frightening physical sensations. But what does that look like from the outside?

It’s estimated that approximately 13.2% of the population have experienced a panic attack at some point in their life, and it can be frightening and unsettling to go through.

Here, we explore the signs that someone may be having a panic attack and share tips for supporting them through it.

1. They have become withdrawn

Perhaps they were joining in with conversations or activities and then became quiet or distant, or maybe you realise you haven’t heard from them in a while. In the middle of a panic attack, it can be hard to communicate with those around you as your mind and body are flushed with adrenaline – and it’s likely that their focus might be on the sensations that they are experiencing.

Try offering them words of reassurance, let them know that you’re there, but don’t bombard them with questions. If you’re close to someone who is prone to panic attacks, they may be able to give you a heads up on how to support them.

For some people, guided words of affirmation and encouragement are helpful, but others may prefer quiet. If you are with someone you don’t know very well, or who is having a panic attack for the first time, just try to be gentle in your approach, and tune in to what is and isn’t working for them.

2. They look visibly hot and flustered

Panic attacks can cause you to feel very warm, and so if someone is experiencing one they may begin to sweat or be uncomfortably hot. You may notice that their face is flushed or that they have taken off some layers, and they could also feel nauseous.

If you can, offer to take them somewhere where they can get some fresh air and a bit of space, open a window, or bring them a glass of cool water for them to sip on.

3. Their breathing has changed

When our bodies go into flight or fight mood during panic, it can have a big impact on our breathing patterns. Someone might experience shortness of breath, trouble breathing, or chest pain. This may also lead them to feel dizzy, lightheaded, and faint as they try to catch their breath.

Taking back control over your breathing can be an incredibly helpful grounding technique. Try counting with them as you breathe in for the count of five, and then slowly breathe out for the count of seven.

4. They are shaking

Shaking and shivering are more signs to look out for. Once again, the adrenaline rushing through their body could be the cause behind the shaking, as their body is on high alert. Some people may also find that they feel cold rather than hot when having a panic attack, so this could also be another reason for feeling shakey.

5. Invisible signs

Of course, though there are physical signs that you can look out for, a lot of what the person will be experiencing is internal and invisible to an outsider – in some cases, there could be no external signs at all. But if you notice something feels 'off', by offering some words of support, gently checking in, and asking whether they can describe what they are going through, you may be able to build up a better picture of what it is that they are experiencing and can then work together to find a way to support them.

Need support? Connect with a counsellor using counselling-directory.org.uk

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