What NOT to do When Someone is Having a Panic Attack

What NOT to do When Someone is Having a Panic Attack November 19, 2018


I just saw a nightmare of a meme that had been widely shared on Facebook, giving terrible advice.

The meme said: “HOW TO: CALM SOMEONE WHEN THEY’RE HAVING A PANIC ATTACK. Step one: wrap your arms tightly around them, kind of like a hug. It triggers a hormone in the brain and calms them. (Note: they may resist, but they will relax into your arms at some point.) Step two: if you hum or whisper softly, the vibrations against their body will soothe them. Step three: tell them it’s gonna be okay.” 

This is the absolute worst advice I have ever heard, period.

If you do this to someone having a panic attack, you are going to make them infinitely worse and I think you’ll meet the legal definition of assault as well.

I was horrified to find that this meme had been shared over 1400 times on Facebook. I hope those were 1400 rage-sharings where people begged their loved ones not to try this technique, but I’m afraid they weren’t. I’m afraid someone is going to do this to a person who looks like they’re having a panic attack, and God help that person then.

I can only hope my blog post reaches some of the people who might be taken in by that meme.  Please, please, for the love of all that’s holy and decent, don’t ever assault someone you think is having a panic attack.

Let me give you some background, in case you’re unfamiliar with panic.

A panic attack is an intense rush of fear and anxiety that can occur suddenly for no reason or because it’s been triggered by some stimulus. Panic attacks can happen to anyone, as an isolated incident or as part of any number of mental disorders. Panic attacks are extremely uncomfortable, agonizing events where a person might feel like they’re going to die, but they can’t in themselves kill someone or cause permanent harm.

You cannot know if someone else is having a panic attack, unless you ask them. Even a mental health professional might not know, just by looking at someone, if they’re having a panic attack. A panic attack can have any number of symptoms that look all different ways to the outside observer. The sufferer might have shortness of breath; they might be crying; they might flee the room for no ostensible reason, or sit or lie down like they’re going to faint. They might yell or be unable to speak. They might clutch their chest or throat. Maybe they’ll just twitch or pace around looking terrified. A person who looks like they’re having a panic attack to you, might actually be having some kind of physical health episode. Maybe they have a bad case of asthma and they can’t breathe right now. Or maybe they’re starting to have a seizure. Or perhaps they suffer from chronic pain and they’re having a sudden-flare up and waiting for their medications to kick in. Or they may be having a heart attack. Or maybe they just inhaled a bone and they need someone to give them the Heimlech Maneuver. And unless they need the Heimlech Maneuver, the last thing they want is for somebody to man-handle them without asking.

Sometimes what looks to you like a panic attack is actually a mental symptom of a different sort. A person displaying that kind of behavior might be having a flashback to a rape, a sexual or physical abuse they suffered, a combat situation or the like. And a person having a flashback does not want ANYONE, particularly a stranger, grabbing them and forcing physical intimacy of any kind. If you forcibly man-handle a woman having a rape flashback you’re liable to get kicked in the yarbles, and you’ll deserve it.

And no, there is absolutely not a magical panic-killing hormone that is automatically triggered in everyone by a vigorous vibrating hug whether the hug recipient wants it or not. Forcing unwanted touch on a person having a panic attack is only going to make them more terrified.

So, what SHOULD you do if you think someone is having a panic attack?

I’m not a medical professional, but unlike the author of that terrible meme I’ve actually asked my friend who is a nurse about it, and I have considered situations where I’ve panicked, and I’ve looked up first aid rules in various guides to double check our answers. This is a much better procedure:

You start by asking if they’re okay.

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